Newton: Villaraigosa’s legacy

Uncertainty over the mayor may come from comparing what he's done to what he might have done.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)
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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his final State of the City address last week, and as these speeches go, it was fairly typical. He boasted of progress in environmental protection and public safety, both genuine hallmarks of his work and legitimate sources of pride. He engaged in a bit of false humility: “I have been fortunate and blessed to partner with you.” Villaraigosa has some good qualities, but humility isn’t one of them.

Villaraigosa has reason to be proud of his accomplishments. Crime in Los Angeles, as he noted, has fallen more, and held its gains better, than in almost any major American city. Los Angeles is an international leader in weaning itself from dirty energy, particularly coal. Trade has increased at the port even as it has become cleaner. And LAX is finally undergoing a long-overdue modernization.

So why are Angelenos so conflicted about Villaraigosa? He blames the media, but that’s a diversion.


Over the last year, the polls I’ve seen — one just last week — suggest that about 20% of Angelenos believe he’s done a very good job and that about 20% think he’s done a very poor job. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The uncertainty about Villaraigosa, I would submit, comes from comparing what he’s done to what he might have done. Indeed, the more revealing State of the City address was not his last but his first, delivered in 2006 when his administration was just nine months old. Villaraigosa spoke that day at Accelerated High School, and his address brimmed with the promise of a young administration eager to take on the city’s most pressing problems: crime, the city budget, the environment and, especially, schools.

“I believe we need to wake up and shake up the bureaucracy at LAUSD,” the mayor said, and the city responded. His address was interrupted nearly 50 times by applause, and it was broadcast on live television.

At its crux was a proposal to create a council of mayors to oversee the school district and lead the cause of reform.

Coverage seized on that issue — The Times correctly described it as an “ambitious and politically perilous campaign” — but the mayor’s speech included other ambitious ideas as well. He vowed to eliminate the city’s structural deficit within five years and promised to do so by making tough decisions on spending. “We can’t realize our dreams if we don’t live within our means,” he said.

He promised to add 1,000 police officers to the ranks of the LAPD, and he pledged to plant a million trees.


He didn’t achieve any of those goals. The city’s budget shortfall is smaller than it was in 2006, but it’s not eliminated; in fact, it’s at about $150 million. He hired an additional 800 or so officers, not 1,000, and then padded his numbers by merging the agency that provides security for city buildings into the LAPD. He won legislative approval for his school plan, but the courts threw it out. And his administration succeeded in planting about 350,000 trees, not 1 million.

That’s not the same as saying he failed. After all, 350,000 trees is a lot, and so are 800 police officers; the city is greener and safer because of Villaraigosa’s efforts. Villaraigosa also got control of some schools through a partnership with L.A. Unified, and those schools have produced some commendable progress. He has been a forceful, visionary leader in transportation and the environment. But throughout Villaraigosa’s tenure, there has consistently been a sense that he has fallen short of his potential and delivered less than he promised.

Moreover, there’s a nagging bit of falseness in the 2006 speech, as one reads back on it today. That line about the need to “make tough choices” in order to live “within our means” was delivered just a year before Villaraigosa signed a five-year deal with city workers that gave them salary increases of 5% a year. Mind you, that was before the national economy collapsed, but even in good times, a five-year package that raised salaries by more than 25% was extravagant to the point of reckless, and it certainly makes one wonder whether Villaraigosa ever really contemplated making the tough budgetary decisions that he promised he would.

Villaraigosa does not deserve to be regarded as a failure, and the one-fifth or so of Los Angeles that considers him a flop does him an injustice. But he’s also not what many had hoped he’d be, and that’s largely his own fault. He promised something great. He delivered something merely good.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is “Eisenhower: The White House Years.” Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.