It has been nearly four years since Antonio Villaraigosa defeated Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn after decrying the incumbent’s lackluster performance, suggesting that Hahn’s lack of managerial mastery was reflected in a city still failing to live up to its potential.
Now Villaraigosa is in some sense where Hahn was then, presiding over a city that, even before the recession hit, lacked the buoyant civic spirit that so many voters expected the new mayor to spark. No one doubts Villaraigosa’s energy or enthusiasm, but Los Angeles has not recaptured the tone of optimism and creative possibility that were its hallmarks in the 1980s and again in the post-riot, post-earthquake 1990s. Unlike many of its urban counterparts across the nation, it hasn’t mustered the confidence that it can overcome seemingly intractable problems such as gang violence, transportation gridlock, poverty and homelessness.
Programs to improve Los Angeles and to engage the city’s people in serious conversations about the region’s future often seem little more than media campaigns. Major policy statements are announced -- such as the promising vision of the “city of boulevards” -- and are never mentioned again. Worthy initiatives such as the one to effectively guide and oversee the city’s gang programs cannot be evaluated without the test of time, yet are still trumpeted as outstanding successes.
Villaraigosa missed a chance to lead educational reform by agreeing with teachers unions to an unworkable compromise for governance of the Los Angeles Unified School District, then he steamrolled his plan through the Legislature before finally being stopped by the courts. He squandered goodwill with his less than straightforward handling of his extramarital affair.
Villaraigosa’s chief triumphs are as power broker and deal maker. No candidate for City Council, the school board or most Los Angeles-based districts in the Legislature stands much of a chance without his backing. Ballot measures go nowhere without him.
He has used those skills to benefit the city. His drive to fulfill a campaign promise of a “subway to the sea” turned into a ballot measure and overwhelming support from voters to tax themselves for the Metro and other transportation projects. He capitalized on Hahn’s best decision -- to hire William J. Bratton as police chief -- by backing Bratton and by eliminating the trash-collection subsidy to help pay to expand the police force. Although slow to respond to the personnel fiasco that was the Fire Department, he did respond, replacing the fire chief. He is trying to get Los Angeles to more vigorously follow the lead of smaller cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the environment. He has taken a measure of responsibility for Los Angeles schools, and stands poised to be judged on their record.
Los Angeles mayors rarely accomplish much of what they hope to achieve, and Los Angeles usually moves at much the same pace no matter who is in charge. But there is no denying that in getting transit funding and enlarging the Los Angeles Police Department, this mayor has succeeded.
We still hold out hope that Villaraigosa can become a great mayor. For now, he is a good mayor, and one worthy of reelection. That’s especially true given the field of opponents, none of whom we can support. We endorse Villaraigosa. Four more years.
And there’s the rub. Will it be four more years? He has acknowledged his interest in running for governor next year, and that poses a quandary for Angelenos. We want and deserve a mayor who is a national figure, able to go toe-to-toe with the mayors of New York or Chicago for federal funding or attention, able to command respect and attention for Los Angeles. That kind of stature goes hand in hand with political ambition and personal aspiration -- Tom Bradley ran for governor, and so did Richard Riordan. A mayor worth having may be one who is predisposed to moving up the ladder.
The Times rejects the naive calls for Villaraigosa to spend more time in the city, at his desk. A metropolis like Los Angeles needs a leader who spends a lot of time on airplanes, pressing our case in Washington, Sacramento, Wall Street and elsewhere. If some of those stops are devoted to political fundraising, so be it; that’s part of the game. But Villaraigosa owes it to Los Angeles to show that most of his time on the road is spent pursuing the interests of the people back home. It’s fine for his political career to benefit from his good work for the city; sometimes, though, it seems as if the city is the one along for the ride.
Being a successful mayor requires more than just a five-year breeze through town. The whole point of vesting the mayor with more executive authority, as voters did in adopting a new City Charter in 1999, is to also vest him with accountability. And that works only if the mayor expects to be on the spot when it’s time to assess programs and initiatives he started. Villaraigosa already has served a longer tenure as mayor than he did as Assembly speaker, and much longer than he did as a councilman, but the job requires more staying power than just a term and a half. We’re not telling him not to run for governor; rather, we’re noting that in endorsing him for a second term, we are asking him to finish this job before he takes another.
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