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Villaraigosa: The Hero Undone by Hubris
June 13, 2001

LOS 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 a hero.

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 himself. 

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 pain.

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 Banderas.

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 sinned. 

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 calling card.

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.

 

 
 


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