Villaraigosa: The Hero Undone by
June 13, 2001
ANGELES — One of the lessons that Antonio Villaraigosa’s mother
undoubtedly taught him while she was raising him in their modest
City Terrace home in the Eastside of Los Angeles was to be humble,
especially when things are going well.
But something always happens to heroes when they are on top.
Invariably they reek with cockiness and self-assurance, and what the
Greeks called hubris — excessive confidence — creeps in as yet one
more character flaw.
Homer and Shakespeare are littered with the woes of tragic heroes
undone by hubris.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the defeated Los Angeles mayoral candidate
who came agonizingly close to becoming the city’s first Hispanic
mayor in 129 years, may be the most contemporary incarnation of such
What may have made Villaraigosa such an attractive candidate to
so many voters, however, may not have been that he is Latino but
instead that he shares so many of the characteristics that we have
come to associate with all archetypal heroes, from Moses to King
Arthur to, yes, even Luke Skywalker.
There is usually something unusual about the circumstances of a
hero’s birth or background, which certainly was true with
Villaraigosa: an alcoholic, abusive father who left his mother to
raise her family on her own.
An event, sometimes traumatic, leads to adventure or quest. With
Villaraigosa, it was a paralyzing physical ailment as a youth, then
being kicked out of high school and forced to virtually self-educate
Often a hero has a special weapon only he can wield. In Antonio’s
case, the weapon was his incredibly engaging personality and his
unique ability to build coalitions of the strangest of bedfellows.
A hero always has supernatural help and what do you call
Villaraigosa’s meteoric political rise in a mere seven years — from
a political nobody to California Assembly Speaker — if not a career
looked over by the gods, if not of heaven or Olympia then of the
Democratic Party for sure.
Then, like most heroes, Villaraigosa was forced to prove himself
many times while on his political adventure, most recently by not
only making it into the June 5 mayoral run-off election but by being
the top vote-getter in the April 10 primary.
Unfortunately, a hero is often betrayed by an Unhealable Wound.
In Villaraigosa’s case, it was the Vignali Letter — the letter he
wrote in 1996 to President Clinton pleading for a pardon for the
convicted drug dealing son of a political contributor.
Villaraigosa either didn’t know or didn’t want to know just how
deeply Clinton had plunged his knife into that wound when he
pardoned the drug dealer on the day he left office.
It was only in the final weeks of the campaign, when explosive
television commercials attacking Villaraigosa for writing the letter
and then initially denying authorship that he began to feel the
Where hubris comes in is not in the Vignali Letter, but in what
Villaraigosa chose to do about it — which was virtually nothing.
Elections analyst Arnold Steinberg faults Villaraigosa for not
attacking back, for not being equally critical and nasty about
Mayor-elect James K. Hahn’s own record while serving as City
Attorney for the last 16 years.
You can only assume that Villaraigosa had fallen in love with the
heroic image that he had succeeded in building around himself: The
bad boy from the Eastside turned good. The Political Prodigal Son.
It was sexy and alluring. Rich white and Jewish men from the Los
Angeles Westside ate it up. White women with Vogue looks and Gucci
handbags found him attractive. A part of Villaraigosa must have
started looking in the mirror each morning and seeing Antonio
Villaraigosa himself bought into his image. That’s hubris.
He saw this charismatic candidate with a good guy image, and he
chose to counter the Hahn attacks with the kind of campaign that the
good guy in a Hollywood political movie might use — the "clean
campaign" he so proudly bragged about on election night.
Villaraigosa’s boundless confidence convinced him that neutral or
uncommitted voters couldn’t possibly believe what the Hahn
commercials were saying about him, not when he had some time back
confessed all his mea culpas of his younger days including marital
infidelities, and been forgiven for them.
Villaraigosa, however, perhaps failed to understand that once
you’ve been given a second chance, as he loved to say he had, that
people hold you up to a higher standard than the guy who hasn’t
To that end, voters in Los Angeles showed that they will elect a
Hispanic candidate with a traditional background and traditional
American Dream poster child credentials — as they did in City
Attorney-elect Rocky Delgadillo — but will not elect a Hispanic with
a somewhat checkered past who makes his own former bad boy image a
Moreover, Villaraigosa must now consider these sobering lessons:
• The political clout in Los Angeles of labor leader Miguel
Contreras and the County Federation of Labor (both of whom strongly
worked for Villaraigosa’s campaign) which he heads is greatly
exaggerated, especially when large factions of that group are not
swayed by the leadership and bolt to the other candidate.
• Villaraigosa's failure to pass the bar exam four times may
indeed have been illuminating, particularly in light of the Vignali
letter which he wrote after taking the father's side of the case at
face value and not bothering to do the first thing most law students
are instructed to do: know your client.
• You can't run for office with skeletons in the closet and not
expect them to be portrayed in the worst possible way by your
opponent — and not be prepared to retaliate with an attack campaign
of your own.
• You can't be a candidate for office in a city with the biggest
gang problems in the country and not expect that any vote or
position you have taken in the past on gangs and law and order
issues won't be combed over for flaws.
• The endorsements of billionaires (Villaraigosa had four), the
establishment newspaper of LA, the leading Spanish newspaper of the
city, the Democratic Party, organized labor are apparently not even
as potent as a latte grande from Starbucks.
But as an archetypal hero, Villaraigosa can take solace.
Moses, after all, didn’t get to the promised land either.