As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa leaves office, the city's voters are deeply split over his tumultuous eight-year tenure, according to a new USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll.
Villaraigosa will turn over the reins of the city Sunday night to Eric Garcetti in a markedly different environment from the euphoric one that greeted him in 2005, when he was elected the first Latino mayor in the city's modern history. He came into office with soaring marks — nearly two-thirds of the city's voters viewed him favorably.
Voters surveyed in recent days do not look as kindly upon him, with 47% giving him a favorable rating and 40% disapproving of his time in office.
"The mayor's leaving office with some very mixed voter opinions of his accomplishments," said Jeff Harrelson, a partner at M4 Strategies, the Republican firm on the bipartisan polling team that conducted the survey for the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and The Times. Still, he said, "it's not overall all that bad for someone whose time in office included a national recession."
Villaraigosa's two terms in office coincided with high unemployment and the crash of the housing market across the nation, both of which hit California and Los Angeles particularly hard.
"Given the length and the severity of the state's and region's recession, these are very good numbers for an outgoing mayor," said poll director Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP operative.
Demographic and partisan divides drove poll respondents' feelings about Villaraigosa. Latinos, younger voters and Democrats tended to have more favorable views of Villaraigosa; less favorable views came from whites, Republicans, older voters and those who had lived in the city for three decades or more.
The contrast among white and Latino voters was the starkest. Villaraigosa was effectively tied among white voters, whereas 58% of Latinos viewed him favorably and only 33% viewed him unfavorably.
Several Latino poll respondents who approved of the mayor's performance said Villaraigosa's ethnicity did not affect their views.
"That doesn't matter to me," Adriana Navarro, a 43-year-old grocery store supervisor, said in a follow-up interview.
The Winnetka resident, a Democrat, said she especially appreciated the improvements under Villaraigosa in public transportation and development in downtown Los Angeles, which she enjoys visiting.
"He did a lot of good things in the downtown, and I like that because I'm a downtown girl," Navarro said.
As expected, Villaraigosa did as well among Democrats as with Latinos, with 58% viewing him favorably.
"As his term has gone on, he's become more visible on the national stage," said Amy Levin of Benenson Strategy Group, the Democratic firm that worked on the poll. "There's more of a partisan split going on here than there has been in the past."
Republicans widely viewed Villaraigosa unfavorably. In interviews, some said that was due to their perception that he paid greater attention to raising his profile — chairing the Democratic Party's 2012 presidential convention, making the rounds on cable television to support President Obama and self-aggrandizing, they said — than to his duties at home.
"He spent more time out of the office than in the office, always on TV, always at sports games," said Don Gray, who lives in West Los Angeles and identified himself as a "strong Republican."
"Villaraigosa's a very good talker, and he can be likable to a certain extent, but when it comes to actually putting your foot down and doing what's necessary, he shakes."
Villaraigosa won the highest marks for his work on public transportation and public safety, and his lowest grades on education, the city's gaping budget deficit and job creation.
His standing on education marked a repudiation because one of the hallmarks of Villaraigosa's tenure was his effort to shake up the city's schools. Twenty-two percent of poll respondents said schools had declined the most during the last eight years, making it their greatest concern.
Villaraigosa sought unsuccessfully to take over the schools, took a strong stance against the city's teachers union, shaped the school board through his support of candidates and took over some of the city's most struggling campuses, with mixed results.
Navarro, who gave Villaraigosa a "very favorable" rating, said that during his tenure she was most disappointed in the performance of the city's schools. Her two children both attended public school, and she saw steady declines in services, from music education to after-school tutoring.
"A lot of the sports got cut. Now we have to pay; the parents need to pay and donate time for the programs to continue. We have to raise money," she said.
Schnur, of USC's Unruh Institute, noted that many voters do not realize that the mayor has no formal authority over the schools. Funding was slashed in recent years by lawmakers in Sacramento.
Typically, perceptions of mayoral tenures are most affected by economic conditions, which are largely out of mayors' control. In Villaraigosa's case, his two terms were hobbled in some voters' minds by the national recession.
Alexandria Polsky-Bethune, a self-described moderate Democrat who gave Villaraigosa a "very unfavorable" rating, said many of her classmates at Cal State Northridge have graduated but not been able to find work.
"I'm worried," said the 21-year-old communications major, who will start her senior year in the fall. "Most of them move back home with no jobs. I love my family, but I don't plan on moving back home."
The poll, which interviewed 500 registered voters by telephone, was conducted June 24-26. The survey has an overall margin of error of 4.4 percentage points in either direction, with a higher margin of error for subgroups.