The Enigma That Is Antonio Villaraigosa

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa finds himself more popular on the road than at home.. (Photo/ Vernon T. Williams)

BILL CLINTON, BARACK Obama, Tony Blair, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Antonio Villaraigosa? How could I possibly lump a politician whose highest office has been mayor of not even the biggest city in the U.S. with two American presidents and a British prime minister?

Had I bought into the hype or imbibed on the Antonio Villaraigosa Kool-Aid? A Kool-Aid that many others may swig after his scheduled appearance Saturday at the National Council of La Raza conference in Las Vegas?

For many skeptics, it would appear, that has been the only way they have been able to explain the country’s continuing fascination with the 59-year-old mayor of Los Angeles: That he’s a shaman, a priest of charisma politics — or that he’s the luckiest office-holder around, arriving on stage at a time when Latinos have become the Louis Vuitton of voter blocs in America and fortunate that there’s a dearth of electrifying Hispanic politicians around.

But after 18 years of Villaraigosa in public office and after personally observing him since 1978, it’s become apparent that, no matter what you may think about Antonio — his politics, his incessant self-promotion, his womanizing or any other aspect of his life — the man is a dominant force in American public life with an uncanny ability not only to overcome personal and political setbacks but to gain strength from them.

In that respect, yes, he belongs in a list with politicians like Clinton, Obama and Blair — men who have overcome being abandoned by fathers, surviving childhood poverty, racial isolation or national controversy over their political leadership in a time of war.

“Antonio Villaraigosa has a rare quality in being able to stare personal and political oblivion in the eye and to not blink,” says Los Angeles political consultant William Orozco. “Any politician can look like he’s on top of the world when he’s never been knocked off from there.

“But Antonio can look on top of the world when it would appear it’s collapsed from under him. Next thing you know, he’s survived the crisis.”

The most recent example of such a turnaround came last week when, after months of calamity that seemed to have doomed perhaps the centerpiece of his mayoral years, Villaraigosa celebrated what many are calling his biggest accomplishment: Salvaging his ambitious “subway to sea” with the Congressional approval of a funding program allowing completion of the mass transit project in 10 years instead of 30.

“A game changer,” Villaraigosa said of the legislative action that he called “the most important job-creating bill Congress has passed to date.”

“Villaraigosa, of course, makes things hard for himself because his personal story steps on his work-related story,” wrote Bill Boyarsky, the retired Los Angeles Times dean of the city’s political writers on the local blog LAObserved. “As his America Fast Forward was passing, his lover of three years, television reporter Lu Parker, broke up with him. Two girl friends and a broken marriage catch public attention.

“His legacy, however, will be the construction projects — and jobs in a region hard hit by the recession. These will be feeding the economy and easing traffic long after he leaves office.”

Even as he prepares to chair the Democratic National Convention this summer, those comments largely sum up Villaraigosa’s tarnished image in his home town. He is seen as heavily flawed, having fallen short of so many of the great expectations which accompanied him into office in 2005.

Villaraigosa swept into office as if sanctified for greatness. He was the splashiest, most charismatic campaigner the city had seen this side of the silver screen. He was described by some media pundits as the Hollywood-style mayor that Tinseltown deserved. London’s Guardian newspaper had called him “the Latino Tony Blair.”

On the day of his inauguration, Villaraigosa walked from an Inaugural Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to City Hall arm-in-arm with his family, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, and hundreds of friends and supporters. Some described the inspiring rhetoric of his inaugural address as Kennedyesque.

People who should have known better hailed him as the city’s messiah. In 2006, my editor at the Los Angeles Daily News — where I was hired to write about politics and Villaraigosa largely because of my long ties to Antonio — would walk through the newsroom boasting openly about his outlandish expectations of the new mayor.

“Antonio is our last best hope,” Editor Ron Kaye would announce to his staff, even as I worked on the first story that would be published deconstructing the myth Villaraigosa had built around himself — a story Kaye was aware of and approved. “He’s the last best hope we have for Los Angeles.”

Now a blogger and head of a citizens movement in the city, Kaye has turned 180 degrees on Villaraigosa, with blog entries as harsh as any you will read about Antonio.

What turned public opinion against Villaraigosa? Why did the city’s suck-up glossy, Los Angeles magazine, which trumpets anything Angelino, assess its once beloved mayor as a “FAILURE” in a cover profile? How could someone who had climbed so high in a city built on stars have fallen so far? And how is it that, regardless of how he’s thought at home, Villaraigosa remains a popular Latino political figure almost everywhere else in America?

Villaraigosa was no ingenue when he first ran for mayor in 2001. He had served in the State Assembly for seven years, several of them as the powerful Assembly Speaker. Antonio was not some political prince or Latino Siddhartha. But the right business and behind-the-scenes power people in the city were already intoxicated on his Kool Aid. Had Villaraigosa been a filmmaker, he would have had a three-picture deal and an office at the studio of his choosing just on the pitch alone.

At another time, there is no telling how far Villaraigosa could have ridden that wave. His misfortune was that he had gotten himself elected mayor at the worst of coming economic times, with the bad luck of unprecedented and unending budget crisis, impending layoffs and increasingly disgruntled labor unions. Those conditions torpedoed Villaraigosa’s agenda: improving schools, ending traffic congestion, greening the city.

The city’s favorite son, though, gave his public an easier, more emotional reason for unleashing its fury. In 2007, a scandalous affair with a Spanish TV anchor-reporter that ended his marriage reduced Villaraigosa’s image to that of an an unfaithful Latin lover, the least respectable role that any actor could be cast in, either in the studio era or today.

Villaraigosa surprised many by calling on his survivor’s knack for making it through adversity. Politicos who know him say the real test-under-fire for Villaraigosa had come in 1994 when, with the blessing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he had upset a candidate backed by California’s male Latino political establishment to win his first election: a State Assembly seat in a heavily Hispanic district from which he rose to Assembly Speaker.

Many do not know that Villaraigosa ultimately had to win that election without Molina’s support. She had angrily disassociated herself from him after news broke that during the primary campaign Antonio had been unfaithful to his wife who was fighting cancer at the time. Penniless politically, Villaraigosa had to scramble to convince the Latino political establishment not to challenge him with write-in candidate in the general election.

“No one thought I could win under those circumstances,” Villaraigosa said in an interview at that time. “But I proved them wrong, didn’t I?”

In doing so, Villaraigosa became the most powerful Latino politician not only in Los Angeles but in California. Molina and the old Latino political hacks and bosses could no longer touch him.

“I am playing in a different ball game than any of them ever has — I know that,” Villaraigosa told me in an interview at perhaps his lowest point. “This isn’t a good time for me. But I’m a survivor. I believe in the better angels in our nature, and I’ll call upon them in me just as I expect that side in other people.”

It was 2001, and he had just lost his first mayoral campaign.We were sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles, and everyone there wanted a vente latte along with a handshake and a hug if they could manage it.

Tall, leggy beautiful women who worked in nearby office buildings hovered around us hoping to meet Antonio. He didn’t ignore them but he was also courteous and professional around them. One of the women spilled her latte, and Villaraigosa got a Starbucks worker to clean it up.

“He’s the sexiest man in Los Angeles,” one of the women told me later.

And he’d lost the election.

It reminded me of the first time I saw Antonio. It was 1978 on the UCLA campus, and he was a speaker at a Chicano protest rally at the university. His look was appropriate for the time: Long, wavy hair and mustache that made him look a lot like Geraldo Rivera.

“Who’s he?” I remember a striking blonde student asking.

“That’s Tony Villar,” someone told her. She smiled and kept looking at him. She didn’t care about Chicano rights, the movement or the cause. She was focused on the messenger.

And that’s been Villaraigosa — he added his ex-wife’s name to his when they married — his entire public life. He’s been a messenger and when the message hasn’t registered, he’s been smart enough to change it, the way populists have long done it, regardless of whether it’s the personal biographical narrative or a position on policy.

This is the politics Antonio has always understood and practiced — and which few like to talk about. We like to envelop our politics in professional discourse about policy, polls, opinion and it’s-the-economy-stupid-BS. But the politics of charisma that has always defined Villaraigosa and that now so heavily sways America is more visceral. It’s about feel and touch. It’s about how a candidate looks and talks, dresses and walks.

Politics, of course, has always been about pressing the flesh, which traditionally has meant handshakes and kissing babies. But it’s also about seduction, not usually the I-want-to-have-your-baby-John-Edwards kind but more the red carpet seduction of celebrity.

Villaraigosa has never made any secret that he considers himself part of that world. He attends the Grammys, the Oscars and sits at court side with Jack Nicholson to watch the Lakers — and he’s even drawn criticism and fines for accepting the freebies that many top celebrities are accorded. And then he was living with a former Miss USA whom he had turned into the First Lady of L.A. in the taxpayer-supported mayor’s mansion — a relationship some thought would lead to marriage.

It likely pains the city’s political reporters to have to write about their mayor as if he were some pro athlete with trophy girlfriends and out-of-wedlock kids, but this is a different day with different rules. And, hey, if it’s OK for Tom Brady, how can it be bad for the rest of the world?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, American politics has already become the ultimate reality show.

That explains, too, the paradox with Villaraigosa: How he can be so disliked and criticized in Los Angeles but continue to be so popular and liked wherever he goes outside his hometown.

It is now the challenge that Villaraigosa faces as he prepares for the next chapter of his life — possibly running for governor in 2014 or maybe a job in the second Obama administration, if there is one.

“There’s a new wind blowing in Los Angeles and in America,” Villaraigosa has said on more than one occasion. “I can feel it all around me. It’s a new world, and I love living in it.”

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