In a new role that will raise his national profile, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa assumes the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Monday, putting him on the front lines in the fight over federal budget cuts and in a good position to secure Washington's help with his pet project: speeding expansion of the transportation system back home.
"Mayors, we can't afford to be timid," Villaraigosa declares in an address that he will deliver to fellow mayors in Baltimore on Monday.
Villaraigosa is the first L.A. mayor to head the group since Norris Poulson did more than 50 years ago — although Tom Bradley was president of the National League of Cities in 1974.
He takes over the conference at a time when cities have been hit hard by spending cuts pushed by a determined House Republican majority. Villaraigosa, it seems, may spend a lot of time in his new position playing defense.
But it will also give him higher visibility on the national stage. Villaraigosa is due to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and lead mayors in a meeting with President Obama on Monday.
That may help the mayor build support for his initiative to obtain federal assistance to accelerate transportation projects in L.A. and other cities by establishing himself on Capitol Hill as the leader of a national group of mayors from both parties, rather than the Democratic mayor of a liberal city.
And it could open doors for the next stage of his career, once his term as mayor expires in 2013.
Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., speculated that Villaraigosa may be positioning himself for a role in the Obama administration if the president wins reelection.
But he noted that Villaraigosa, who succeeds Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minn., in the non-paying position, could draw flak at home if he spends a lot of time traveling.
"If he's really looking like he's spending an inordinate amount of time in Washington or around the country and it looks like he is campaigning for a job, than you can make an argument that constituents are going to be mad," Regalado said.
Villaraigosa shrugged off the expected criticism. "With so much of our funds coming from Sacramento and Washington, if you're not there, you're not doing your job," he said in an interview.
"It does take some time away from your home city," said Paul Helmke, a former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who served as conference president in 1997-98. "But I always felt that it creates benefits not only for cities in general but for the home city too."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe said, "It's good for us to have someone with that kind of visibility on the national level."
But, he said, "it doesn't always translate into dollars."
In a copy of his speech that was provided to The Times, Villaraigosa takes stands on a number of national issues.
He calls on mayors to get involved in reforming underperforming school districts, with or without federal help.
Reiterating past statements about his own school improvement efforts in Los Angeles, he claims substantial progress at both campuses he manages through a nonprofit organization and through a school-board majority that he helped elect.
Echoing policy thrusts of the Obama administration, he calls for a teacher evaluation system that allows the least-effective instructors to be laid off first.
On the foreign policy front, Villaraigosa calls for the expedited withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to free up money for the "more pressing mission at home." On Friday, the first day of the conference, the group passed a resolution calling on Congress to hasten the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so more money can be spent creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure and developing sustainable energy.
But Villaraigosa's harshest criticisms are of the deep federal budget cuts that he says threaten the economic recovery of cities.
"Our cities are not just the engine — they're the engine and the axles and the chassis and the door handles of the nation's economy," he says.
Villaraigosa faces a daunting task in taking on Congress.
Seeking to reduce Washington's red ink, Congress has already slashed federal funding for programs cherished by mayors, including the Community Development Block Grant program, a key funding source for local efforts to generate jobs, revitalize run-down neighborhoods and help low-income residents. And more cuts loom.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who, like Villaraigosa, is a former state Assembly speaker, expressed hope that he can unite mayors across the country in persuading Congress to consider a "balanced approach" that would include closing tax loopholes in addition to cuts in order to reduce the federal deficit.
"I think he will use the position to raise the profile of the impact of some of the decisions that we make on cities," she said.
"It's a very important time where cities need a strong voice that Mayor Villaraigosa can give," said Marc H. Morial, a former New Orleans mayor who served as conference president in 2001-02.
Morial said the position "strengthens his ability to build relationships that benefit the city."
But he said balancing local interests with the travel demands of the role would be key.
"For a mayor, what you do on the home front is of paramount importance," Morial said. "At the end of the day, the Conference of Mayors is an important role, but it's not more important than doing your day job, which is to lead the city you've been elected to lead."
Whether the position could help Villaraigosa gain another high political post after his mayoral term expires is unclear.
Helmke noted that he ran for U.S. Senate after serving as conference president, "but I lost."
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.