The Story that Triggered Villaraigosa’s Fall

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA HAD PROMOTED his ambitious trade mission to the Far East for almost an hour when he slipped into a monologue about Chinese food and chopsticks.

“It’s funny, but I’ve been addicted to chopsticks since I was a kid. My kids have, too.”

Those thin, metal chopsticks were another matter, the mayor said, trading stories of their difficulty with editors and reporters before drift
ing back to memories of his childhood.

“I’ve been using chopsticks since I was a kid …”

He rolled his head slowly and gazed upward as if the ceiling tiles were television monitors sho

wing old home movies of his youth when he caught himself and bit his lip.

“That’s not true. I think the first time I went to a Chinese restaurant was when I was 19 …”

As chroniclers of Antonio Villaraigosa invariably come to discover, sometimes what comes out of the Los Angeles mayor’s mouth – particularly when it’s about his past – and what ultimately turns out to be true are not always entirely the same.

Now in his final year in office, Villaraigosa, 59, is catching himself in some of those inconsistencies – those embellishments of the past or his tendency to exaggerate or bolster his importance – flaws that can often simply be attributed to a faulty memory or political hyperbole.

Childhood tale

Ironically, a window to understanding why Villaraigosa tries so hard may be in the very Horatio Alger-like tale the mayor himself has often told about his childhood: Abandoned by his alcoholic, abusive father while he was in kindergarten, raised by a mother he describes as “a woman of indomitable spirit who never stopped believing in me,” and further traumatized when his father sired another son as part of another family and christened him with the same name he had given Villaraigosa at birth – Antonio Ramon Villar Jr.

In that rocky upbringing, some experts say, lies the seed for the drive, ambition and, yes, even the indulgent bravado behind the self-reinvented Villaraigosa, as well as many others in public life.

“The typical politician,” Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman said, “is someone who is unconsciously trying to compensate for feeling powerless as a child.

“Even after being successful, this feeling of smallness and inadequacy from when they were children stays with them. They remain insecure and don’t know if people would vote for them if they knew how powerless or small they still believe themselves to be, so they fabricate stories about themselves to make themselves seem more heroic.”

It may explain why Villaraigosa, more than any Los Angeles mayor since the late Tom Bradley, has so thoroughly enveloped himself in the trappings of the office.

Celeb photo ops

He moved from his home in Mount Washington to stately Getty House, the official mayoral residence just outside Hancock Park. He seeks photo ops with the famous and the powerful: Hollywood celebrities at the Academy Awards, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mexican President Vicente Fox, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

When Blair was in Los Angeles for a visit to UCLA in August 2006, Villaraigosa boasted that London’s Guardian newspaper had called him “the Latino Tony Blair.”

“He knows that real leadership is about challenging your friends and allies,” Villaraigosa said, “and from this distant perspective in sunny L.A., that’s always been the genius of Tony Blair’s record of public service.”

In Villaraigosa’s mind, experts say, the greater, the more heroic the person rubbing elbows with him, the greater, the more heroic the “Latino Tony Blair.” It’s all part of sustaining an image of perfection and personal invincibility and attempting to project that impression to others, as well.

But over the years the patina rubbed off some of the stories that Villaraigosa himself says have made him “the poster child of the American dream.”

Weary of the story

In June, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported that retired Sherman Oaks teacher Herman Katz had grown “weary” of the yarn Villaraigosa has often told of how Katz dramatically turned his life around while the teenage Villar was struggling at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights – almost making it seem as if Katz had become his surrogate father, paving his course to eventual political stardom.

It wasn’t that Katz hadn’t taken an interest in young Villar. But the way Villaraigosa had built up the relationship – introducing him during his inaugural spectacle in 2005 in glowing, almost familial terms – may have made it seem more than it was.

“It wasn’t a `this-kid-could-be-mayor-one-day’ type of thing,” Katz told The Journal. “It just so happened that this was at a time when he needed somebody who showed a little interest, who would give him the encouragement, and that’s what it really was.

“This story is important because it shows people how important an educator can be when you don’t even realize it. You never know how you’re going to affect a kid.”

In fairness to the mayor, experts say, everyone is subject to what W. Keith Campbell, associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and a “narcissism expert,” calls “memory distortion.”

“It’s a self-enhancing direction in which people destroy the past to make themselves look better,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if it’s the politician doing it or handlers doing it because they know it creates a good story.

“If you’re someone like (U.S. Sen.) John McCain, you have a good story to begin with. As for others, I don’t know how much of it is made up and how much is a memory distortion.”

Even the moving story Villaraigosa has often told of having been raised by a single mom singularly devoted to him has come under scrutiny.

It turns out that Villaraigosa’s late mother, Natalia Delgado, remarried and had a second family – including another son, Rob Delgado, the mayor’s half-brother – while Antonio was still living at home.

For Villaraigosa, those childhood recollections may simply be what he would like it to have been, something Campbell said is not unusual.

“Memory is not a tape recorder or a video recorder,” he said. “People sometimes remember something from their childhood that they swear is real but which turns out to be something from `The Brady Bunch.”‘

Still, some of the psychologists and psychiatrists who were asked to familiarize themselves with Villaraigosa’s early life say that the most compelling impact on his development may not have been the influence of his mother – who he says spoke five languages and read him Shakespeare.

Father’s influence

Instead, they said, it may be the traumatic, unresolved relationship with his estranged father, a retired butcher and cab driver with whom Villaraigosa has spoken only a few times since his childhood.

Lieberman, a nationally recognized expert in father-son and other family estrangement issues, has never seen Villaraigosa professionally but studied his relationship with his father and says it is the root of the mayor’s motivation, both personally and politically.

“The mayor would have felt replaced and inconsequential, replaced in his father’s affections by another child given the same name,” Lieberman said. “There’s always going to be jealousy and rivalry for the father’s affections and the feeling of being abandoned.

“The fact that his father had another family and made the situation worse with a son (to whom he gave) the same name … would drive him to be seen to have some identity since his father robbed him of his own identity.”

There are other questions about Villaraigosa’s stories of his childhood.

“God knows that I was never an alcoholic and that I never hurt his mother or abused my family,” Antonio Ramon Villar Sr. said in an interview, denying the mayor’s long-accepted account of his difficult childhood.

“I know the public has been poisoned against me, but this is the truth, so help me God.”

Villaraigosa’s claim that his father later gave another son the exact same name he had given him also is inaccurate.

That other son was christened Anthony Gustavo Villar, and today he is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Anthony Villar, 51, has gone so far as to personally contact Villaraigosa to challenge him on why he has publicly vilified their father, said Estela Villar, Anthony Gustavo’s mother and the wife of Antonio Ramon Villar Sr.

The second family of Villar Sr. portrays a husband and father who has been gentle, loving, kind and deeply religious – and who in over 50 years of marriage to Estela has never abused either his wife or their four children, nor shown any hints of alcoholism.

“I don’t believe a man can change so dramatically in the way he behaved around one family and another,” Estela Villar said in a three-hour interview at the couple’s Montebello home. “If he were the way (Villaraigosa) describes him to have been, he would have shown signs with our family – and there were none.”

Estela Villar said her spouse was the “model father and the model husband,” who from the very beginning of their marriage turned over his paycheck, gave her freedom in running their household and to this day asks for only $40 a month spending money, most of which he uses to buy treats for their 11 grandchildren.

“My husband has never talked about his life with his other family, and I haven’t pried. But I have my doubts that (my husband) was the kind of spouse and father that (Villaraigosa) has portrayed him to have been.

“What his motivation for that is, I don’t know. Could it be for political reasons? Someone else would have to answer that. Do I forgive him for what he has said about my husband? I am still working on that because it hurt my family deeply.

“All I can see in this is that (Villaraigosa) is a very bitter man.”

Villaraigosa’s mother, Natalia Delgado, who had three of her four children with Antonio Ramon Villar Sr., died in 1991.

Villar Sr. said he and Villaraigosa’s mother dissolved their civil marriage in the late 1950s. Antonio and Estela Villar married in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 1960.

According to Villar Sr., his ex-wife remarried and with her new husband moved with her family by Villar – including son Antonio Ramon Jr. and two daughters – into the City Terrace house where Villaraigosa in later years has said he was raised by a working single mother.

“I saw Antonio sporadically, three or four times later – chance meetings, but I wasn’t close to them,” Villar Sr said. “It just seemed better not to prolong matters. They were a family, and I had a (new) family.”

Anthony Gustavo Villar would not talk beyond a brief telephone conversation about his half-brother.

“I can only see that it is only being reopened for a political reason, but I don’t see that it would help Antonio (Villaraigosa) to govern,” he said.

“At this point, it’s a family matter, and we have no wish to have my father’s life written about or investigated.

“What’s important is that the truth is going to be known to those who matter.”

Mayor’s response

Despite repeated efforts to interview the mayor about this story, it was not until late Friday that the subject was engaged.

In a statement that reflects Villaraigosa’s deep emotions about questions being raised about his family, he passionately defended his mother and his portrayal of early childhood.

“I am outraged by the suggestion that my mother was anything less than the brave single mom she was,” he said in a statement.

“She overcame unspeakable violence in a home plagued by alcoholism. Through her strength, she gave her children the opportunities to enjoy the greatest success America has to offer. Her abuser will never be able to take that away.”

In a separate statement, Villaraigosa’s cousin – Ramon Villar – who along with his mother lived with Antonio and Natalia Villar until he was 5, said, “I personally witnessed the abuse of my Aunt Natalia, and my uncle knows that he should take responsibility for that.”

On Saturday, a mayoral spokesman said the reason Villaraigosa had insisted that his father had given the same name to his half-brother is that the mayor had gone by “Anthony Villar” as a youngster.

Reinventing an image

The change of Villaraigosa’s surname – the joining of Villar with ex-wife Corina’s maiden name Raigosa when they married in 1987 – was another attempt to reinvent his identity.

For Villaraigosa, the name change was only part of the reinvention. A low-rider image cultivated from the time he led student protests in high school and later at UCLA was discarded, down to having “Born to raise hell” tattoos removed from his arms. He replaced it with a look out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly, including a personal tailor and professionally bleached teeth.

One of those in whose memory the transformation remains embedded is longtime Democratic activist and Villaraigosa critic Art Pulido, who has known the mayor since 1978 when he met the then-25-year-old Tony Villar at the Olympus Health Spa in Montebello.

“He walked in and reminded me of Zorro,” Pulido recalled. “His hair was slicked back, and he had a little thin mustache, and he reminded me of Tyrone Power in (`The Mark of Zorro’) movie.”

Pulido, then 24, was a body builder who trained other body builders at that gym and remembers an extremely slender Villar introducing himself and asking to join the body-building group.

“He said he’d had an operation and needed to build up his chest muscles,” Pulido recalled. “He said, `I wanna be part of this (body-building) team,’ and we got to know each other.”

For the next year and a half, Villar sporadically worked out with Pulido and his group. Pulido recalls that Villar grew stronger, though he didn’t put on much muscle bulk because he was working out with lighter weights and concentrating on repetitions and not weight.

When Pulido saw Villar about 10 years later at a political fundraising event, a transformation had taken place.

“He no longer had a mustache,” Pulido remembered. “His hair wasn’t slicked back anymore – it was parted on the side like he wears it now. He was in a suit, and he was wearing these little specs that made him look like a college guy.

“I almost didn’t recognize him. I said, `Tony, what happened to you?’

“He said, `My name’s Antonio.’ I said: `Antonio? So you’re not Tony anymore?’ He said, `Yep.”‘

Transformations such as Villaraigosa’s, of course, are part of today’s political culture and the grooming and selling of political candidates.

“It’s all about marketing,” said Nancy Irwin, a Tarzana-based psychologist. “Politicians like the mayor are in the business of selling themselves and appealing to the broadest number of people.”

Irwin, whose specialties include sports psychology, took particular interest in an account of how Villaraigosa has sought to pump up his athletic past, especially in a City Hall where his contemporaries such as City Council President Alex Padilla and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo can boast of sports careers – both having excelled as athletic stars at the high school and collegiate levels.

In 2005, Villaraigosa was often heard using sports metaphors to describe his second mayoral campaign. In at least one instance, Villaraigosa said the campaign had forced him to use his “quick feet.”

“I’ve always had quick feet,” he said. “Quick feet from being a running back. That’s what I played in school. I wasn’t first string, but I had quick feet.”

In fact, Villaraigosa’s organized athletic career was limited to playing on the Cathedral High School team in ninth grade.

“There’s tremendous pressure to fit in with the guys, and sports is one of those ways,” Irwin said. “If the mayor really didn’t play football, he wouldn’t be the first politician to say he did when he didn’t.”

Why do politicians make those kinds of claims, claims that so often can be so easily disproved?

“Because they’re politicians who have fallen victims of politician narcissism – they’ve bought the T-shirt, and they’ve come to believe that they are what they want to be,” veteran political consultant Randy Economy said.

“These sometimes are very bright people, but they say and do some very stupid things because they’ve gotten carried away with themselves and the image they’ve created.”

`Are you real?’

All of which raises the question: Who is Villaraigosa really? What is his true “self”? Why does he pursue all he seeks, including power, with such manic speed? What kind of mind, what kind of an intellect, does he have? Or, as City Councilman Dennis Zine put it, after witnessing Villaraigosa’s near-manic exhibition of endurance during the recent Asian trade trip: “Are you real?”

Often what has been written about Villaraigosa has offered little insight into his psychology but instead usually consisted of glowing phrases about his charisma and energy, vignettes of him in action, but few insights into his sometimes contradictory responses about his life.

No wonder then that the composite of “Villaraigosa” has instead presented an enigmatic figure.

If he doesn’t have a photographic memory, as some have said he does, he has something that approaches it, with an amazing gift for faces and names. But his memory, with an ability to sometimes recall an obscure event from the past, has been part of his endearing charm and often substituted for an intellectual life. He was never an outstanding student, as his four failed attempts to pass the state bar exam would underscore.

But, as experts note, there is no way of knowing how traumatic experiences affect the intellect and development of children who have been abused or who are products of homes in which there was domestic abuse – “the terror,” as Villaraigosa put it, that “a drunken man in a rage can create in a child.”

“I saw my father beat my mother,” Villaraigosa said in a story that has become part of the lore of his early years. “I remember my sister hiding under the bed when he’d come in screaming in a drunken rage.”

Villaraigosa has also talked frequently of how as a child he helped his mother make ends meet by taking a bus downtown to shine shoes and sell newspapers.

“I used to sell La Opinion in front of the Olympic Auditorium on the boxing nights,” the mayor has said. “I’ve been working since I was 7 years old.”

Not surprisingly, out of that childhood, too, has come incredible anger, on which the mayor admittedly acted out in the high school brawl that prompted his expulsion from Cathedral High School in 1969 and the fight in 1977 that led to misdemeanor assault charges that were dropped after the jury deadlocked with an 11-1 vote for acquittal. Villaraigosa has said that the charges stemmed from a restaurant fight in which he responded to insults to his mother and sister.

Longtime Villaraigosa watcher Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow with the New America Foundation, said he thinks an apparent quick-trigger temper resides just beneath his skin, noting in a Los Angeles Times opinion article that in the 2005 mayoral debates, Villaraigosa “repeatedly lost his cool. … (He) visibly seethes, furrowing his brows and clenching his jaw.

“His volcanic reactions … are beginning to reveal what political insiders have known for years: The former Assembly speaker can be thin-skinned, easily angered and even vindictive. Although great politicians learn to distinguish between what is political and what is personal, Villaraigosa has not. He can try to hide this side of his personality, as he has erased his tattoo, but, so far, he can’t make it go away.”

Perhaps Villaraigosa’s incredible success and popularity since his election have helped to rid him of some of those emotional ghosts and demons, maybe recalling him to his own one-time exhortation that campaigns should appeal to “the better angels within us.”

`An American story’

“My story is the story of redemption,” Villaraigosa said shortly after his election. “It is uniquely an American story: That you can start off growing up in a home with domestic violence and alcoholism, a high school dropout – kicked out of high school before that – and turn your life around. I believe that is what America has always been about. It is about second chances.”

“There are strong similarities between Mayor Villaraigosa’s early childhood experiences and those of President Clinton,” Lieberman said. “President Clinton also grew up in an abusive atmosphere, with an abusive stepfather to deal with, and he, too, wasn’t able to protect his mother or himself from this and grew up feeling inadequate and that he had to compensate for something.

“So in a sense, it’s that (abusive childhood) experience that drives some people to great accomplishments, especially in politics.

“If you look at his traumatic childhood, as he’s portrayed it, and where he is today, it’s not difficult to see that the mayor is driven by some tremendous desire to prove that he’s not the underachieving kid from the wrong side of the tracks.”

That drive and that braggadocio was again in evidence during his Asian trade mission, where, after climbing the Great Wall of China, he couldn’t help but boast:

“I’ve done my cardio, baby. When I get back to the hotel, I’m going to lift some weights.”

Then, as if that weren’t enough, he felt compelled to add:

“I’ve been climbing mountains my whole life. I can climb the Great Wall.”

Published in the Los Angeles Daily News, Nov. 18, 2006