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Villaraigosa’s rising profile shadowed by problems in L.A.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is storming the national stage like never before, rebutting GOP talking points in Tampa, Fla., during the Republican convention, becoming a fixture on Sunday morning talk shows and preparing to open next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., where he will play a key leadership role.

Written off by some after a much-publicized extramarital affair and a scandal over free sports and concert tickets, Villaraigosa has emerged as a major figure in the Democrats’ efforts to get out the crucial Latino vote and is again being talked about as a future governor or senator. He’s even coyly danced around questions on CNN about a possible White House bid.

But as his national political star rises, the nagging financial crisis at City Hall could complicate that ascent. Back home, key Villaraigosa allies are warning City Hall is on the verge of going broke. Complaints from neighborhood activists over reduced city services are growing louder.

And public employee unions, a force at next week’s Democratic convention, are increasingly hostile to Villaraigosa. Some, angry over the mayor’s efforts to roll back pension benefits, have likened him to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a lightning rod of anti-union fervor and a target of Democratic Party ire.

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Last week, former Mayor Richard Riordan — a Republican who has endorsed Villaraigosa three times — raised new alarms about spiraling pension costs, declaring that L.A. is headed “deeper into financial disaster.”

The mayor’s top budget analyst warned that record-high staffing at the Los Angeles Police Department — a signature achievement during Villaraigosa’s first term — is in jeopardy unless voters pass two new tax increases.

Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. President Richard Close, who voted for Villaraigosa in the last two elections, says Los Angeles is “in decline and without leadership” from the mayor and the City Council. Angelenos would fare better if the mayor, who has 10 months left in office, stayed put and used his skills to confront the city’s problems, he said.

“He’s running out of time to be the bold leader that he could be,” Close said. “And to be a bold leader, you have to be in Los Angeles, not in Tampa.”

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A spokesman said Villaraigosa’s busy schedule did not permit an interview for this article. But in an email, the mayor said he is in constant contact with city department heads and is “fully engaged on the daily issues and the larger topics that face L.A.” He defended his time away, arguing that national politics plays a huge role in securing money for housing, public transportation and other critical needs.

“When people ask me, ‘What’s the mayor of Los Angeles doing in Charlotte or Tampa?’ I say it matters who’s in the White House,” Villaraigosa told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin this week. “It matters who’s in the majority in Congress.”

Villaraigosa’s prominent profile in the November campaign has given him a chance to expound on Medicare, the power of Latino voters, the federal deficit and appealing to what he describes as a “radical center” of the nation’s increasingly polarized political system.

He has signaled interest in a run for governor, but has carefully avoided specifics, saying that he is looking to finish his mayoral duties on “a high note.”

“I love this job,” he told The Times. “Virtually every one of my buddies who has gone from mayor to governor said they loved being mayor more.”

A former leader of the California Assembly and one of the country’s most recognizable Latino elected leaders, Villaraigosa has long been in the national spotlight. He was on the cover of Newsweek during his first year as mayor. In 2008, he was an aggressive stump speaker for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. And in the last year, he’s built bridges with other big-city leaders as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

But the contrast between Villaraigosa’s dashing national image and the grinding reality of running a city engulfed in crisis has never seemed greater.

Los Angeles has become a case study for how not to manage the proliferation of pot shops. Basic statistics on the performance of the Fire Department in medical emergencies have been deemed unreliable. Budget cuts have forced out thousands of city employees.

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Frayed relations with public employee unions could help Villaraigosa appeal to moderates in a run for higher office. But they could also dampen his attractiveness to key Democratic constituencies.

Art Sweatman, a city tree trimmer and union member, said he will vote enthusiastically for Obama in November. But he is less pleased with Villaraigosa’s prominent role at next week’s convention. The mayor is a Democrat, he said, but “he certainly doesn’t act like one.”

The city’s tree-trimming budget has been cut more than 75% since 2005. Operating hours for 3-1-1, the city hotline for reporting graffiti and illegal dumping, have been pared back by nearly two-thirds. And money for replacing public sidewalks has not been available since 2008, contributing to a $1.5-billion repair backlog.

“This has become a city that doesn’t provide much services,” Sweatman said. “I think his personal goals have gotten in the way” of his responsibilities as mayor.

Councilman Jose Huizar, a union stalwart, defended Villaraigosa’s record, saying the mayor has made difficult decisions. Cuts in services, Huizar said, were inevitable given the global economic crisis. “Did he deliver as much as we would have liked? No,” Huizar said. “But it’s a product of the recession.”

The mayor’s supporters point to other accomplishments. Crime rates in Los Angeles, like those statewide, are at their lowest point in decades. Villaraigosa extracted concessions from city workers on rising retirement costs. And he successfully pushed a new national transportation financing plan that could free up billions of dollars for the planned subway extension to West Los Angeles and other rail lines. That accomplishment will define his leadership era, backers say.

Richard Katz, a top Villaraigosa transportation advisor, said the rail-transit victory is a result of the mayor’s ties to Washington, D.C., and persistence in working the halls of Congress.

“I think that when people look back on this period in L.A., they will see [it] as the time when the mayor moved L.A. from the car capital of the world to a transit-oriented city,” he said. “In L.A., that’s a huge accomplishment, one frankly no one thought was possible.”

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Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson also credits the mayor for progress on the region’s transit network. But he’s concerned decisions on the budget, homelessness and other issues will be placed on hold as many city leaders become increasingly focused on next year’s election and Villaraigosa looks to reposition himself in the national political arena.

Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said Villaraigosa is following a well-worn path for local leaders with grander ambitions.

“It’s always more fun being on national television playing with pundits than it is getting your hands dirty at home,” Schnur said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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