Mayor leaves L.A. in better shape than he found it

I couldn’t have imagined saying this a few years ago, but I wish Antonio Villaraigosa could run again for mayor of Los Angeles.

You can look at broken promises and judge the mayor a flop: too many potholes, and not enough cops.

But I think his legacy is bigger than that. And most Angelenos, it seems, agree. More than half the voters surveyed by Times pollsters last week said they view Villaraigosa favorably.


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That public endorsement shocked local pundits, who consider the mayor all style and no substance.

But style counts in Los Angeles. His ego may be bigger than his intellect, but the mayor has managed to leave his mark in ways that matter more than fixing sidewalk cracks.

He helped get us out of our cars and onto subways and bikes. His team took over some of the city’s worst schools and showed that test scores could rise. He helped tamp down crime in struggling neighborhoods by bringing nighttime sports and arts to parks once claimed by gangs.

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CicLAvia. Subway to the Sea. Summer Night Lights. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a reflection of the personality and passions of this particular mayor.

Villaraigosa swept into office eight years ago by trouncing dependably dull James Hahn, the incumbent whose signature accomplishment was hiring former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton.

The contrast was striking, with Villaraigosa showing that charisma counts, in measurable ways.

And with the election just three weeks away, I’d feel a lot better about the next four years if I glimpsed even a little pizazz from the candidates vying to replace him.


Villaraigosa was his grandiose best during his mayoral campaigns. He was going to plant a million trees, reform hundreds of city schools, put a thousand more police officers on the street.

He fell short on much of that. His effort to take over the school system failed. Money troubles limited hiring. And his sordid affair with a TV newscaster embarrassed the city and damaged his credibility.

And yet the city he’ll hand over to his successor in June is better, busier and more alive than it was when he took the reins in 2005: Crime is down, school test scores are up, the city’s budget shortfall has shrunk.

The mayor doesn’t deserve credit for all of that. But he ought to get points for sowing seeds of a renaissance in a city accustomed to dull mediocrity as the status quo.

People rolled their eyes when Villaraigosa proposed closing streets to cars occasionally to make room for cyclists. Then hundreds of thousands of people on bikes turned CicLAvia into the city’s most popular recurring street party.

The mayor’s passions and programs are a product of his background:

He brought us CicLAvia after he broke his arm on a bike ride along busy Venice Boulevard. He launched Summer Night Lights because he knows what can happen to aimless, jobless, fatherless boys; he was one. He pushed for new blood in failing schools because he understands the power of one caring teacher to turn a student’s life around.

And it was his outsize confidence in his own vision that helped shape the civic zeitgeist.

The drudgery of this campaign has brought our lively mayor into sharper focus. I found myself missing him already as I watched Villaraigosa charm supporters of the United Negro College Fund at its “Mayor’s Masked Ball” fundraiser last month.

He arrived late; he always does. But when he finally blew in with that megawatt smile, sharing jokes and homilies with the well-heeled crowd, the grumbling — Who does he think he is? — stopped and the checkbooks came out.

I couldn’t imagine either Eric Garcetti or Wendy Greuel so effortlessly at ease on that stage, wearing a glittery gold mask and stealing the show from a bevy of celebrities.

How much does that matter? A lot in Los Angeles.

When you’re trying to build partnerships, safeguard shrinking resources and stoke a sense of civic pride in a city of dizzying diversity, a Technicolor personality can be mighty valuable currency.


Did Villaraigosa do as well as he could have during his two terms as mayor? No.

He wasted time tilting at windmills and shrank from some tough choices. And he’s leaving behind financial problems that could have been avoided. Villaraigosa’s “balanced” budget for next year works only if the new mayor can convince city workers to forgo salary hikes that the old mayor approved.

So far, neither candidate has managed to light a fire under a weary electorate that seems disengaged and confused.

We don’t need more slate mailers, paid canvassers or telephone robo-calls. I’m sick of petty personal attacks and meaningless endorsement duels.

I want to know about the candidates’ dreams, beyond the platitudes. Ideas with the power to “really rock L.A.,” as one panelist put it in his question to the pair in their first runoff debate last month.

Their answers were campaign staples, but gave us, at least, a peek at their priorities:

Greuel wants to create technology centers around UCLA, USC and the city’s other universities. Garcetti called for a “Great Streets” program to revitalize major thoroughfares, so they’re more pedestrian- and user-friendly.

That’s a good start, but I’d like to see a little less political calculation, and a little more heart-on-the-sleeve.

Maybe the candidates have learned not to make promises that might be hard to keep. The mayor is taking a pounding on his way out over trees unplanted, potholes unfixed and still-broken sidewalks.

But if Villaraigosa is an example of what not to do, he’s also a lesson in how to nudge a city forward. And I hope whoever replaces him has learned the value of both small gestures and big dreams.