In June 1994, then California Assembly candidate Antonio Villaraigosa rode atop the boot of a convertible in the West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade, smiling, waving and wearing a crisply ironed guayabera — and no one would have known who he was if it had not been for the signs on the sides of the car.
Villaraigosa had just won the nomination for an Assembly seat in the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to election in a heavily Democratic district in the Latino Eastside of Los Angeles.
But the political novice was lucky to even be in the parade. And even luckier to have new friends in the gay and lesbian community who invited him, because he was down and out. He had just lost all his other friends.
Only days after Antonio’s primary triumph, it was revealed that — while his wife was ill with a brain tumor — Villaraigosa had been carrying on an affair with the wife of his campaign manager and best friend. Among the political pals who had angrily disowned him was powerful County Supervisor Gloria Molina, his political benefactor.
Villaraigosa found himself in a personal and political pickle. His wife had kicked him out of the house. He could barely afford a cup of coffee. Political enemies were laughing at him. Former friends were pleading with Molina to support a write-in independent challenger in the general election.
“Antonio’s only friends he could count on were the gays and lesbians who had endorsed him in the primary,” recalled a longtime supporter and member of Mayor Villaraigosa’s inner circle.
“Antonio never forgot who stuck by him through thick and thin. He’s learned a lot over the years, and one of the lessons he’s learned is to honor the friendships that have never wavered in supporting him.”
Villaraigosa insiders say that incident in his early political career is one of the reasons for the mayor’s longstanding and unwavering support of gay rights — especially gay marriage — and why he lobbied so hard behind the scenes recently to get President Barack Obama to change his position on the issue. Last month the president announced that he now supports same sex unions.
“Ultimately, I knew and believed that the president [would support marriage equality] because it’s consistent with who he is,” says Villraigosa, who will chair the Democratic National Convention. “This is who we are. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and a Cesar Chavez and a Dolores Huerta and people like Harvey Milk.
“Open up the country to say that all of us deserve a shot… I think we’re going to win this election… In the end, I think when you’re authentic and true to your values, it inures to your benefit. I believe that.”
But Villaraigosa still has a fight ahead. Since being named convention chairman, he has been pushing for the legalization of gay marriage on the party’s platform, even though it’s a stance that many Democrats would not want to have highlighted just months before the general election.
“The delegates will make the decisions on the platform,” Villaraigosa said of the party’s ultimate 2012 platform. “But I do support it and certainly have for a long time.”
The president’s own evolution on the issue, which Obama insiders say has been painstaking, began paying dividends last week when many of Hollywood’s wealthiest gay donors ponied up hundreds of thousands of dollars at two fund-raisers in Beverly Hills.
“They’re calling Obama the country’s first gay president,” says the Villaraigosa insider who is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. “But it’s Antonio who’s responsible for the coming together: The president mollifying on the issue of gay marriage and the gay and lesbian leadership trusting Obama because they trust Antonio.”
Villaraigosa says his connection to the gay community is also personal. His cousin, John Perez, is the first openly gay speaker of the California State Assembly. Other members of his family are also gay, according to reports.
When he was in the state assembly, Villaraigosa played a key role in passing major legislation related to gay rights, including bills banning discrimination in housing and in the workplace.
“I was supporting marriage equality in 1994 when I got elected to the California State Assembly,” says Villaraigosa. “I’ve felt very strongly for a long time that this is the last frontier of civil rights.”
Legislators remember that during one debate, Villaraigosa brought his young son Antonio Jr. onto the Assembly floor, telling colleagues he wanted his son to be “protected by law whoever he turns out to be and whomever he wants to love.”
“Supportive is too small a word,” recalled Sheila Kuehl, who in 1994 was the first openly gay member of the Assembly. “He was just fierce and unwavering.”
Villaraigosa strongly opposed Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage. When the state Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, he married 11 gay couples at City Hall, including a Hollywood producer and his five-year companion.
“If we truly believe in family values, we should value all families,” says Villaraigosa. “Denying gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry weakens society by hurting our communities, neighbors and families.”
This month, as it does each June, a rainbow-striped flag hangs outside Getty House, the city’s official mayoral residence in Windsor Square where Villaraigosa has lived with his son and daughter since being elected mayor in 2005.
Last Sunday, Villaraigosa welcomed thousands of LGBT people and their supporters to Getty House for his annual star-studded garden party kicking off Gay Pride Week, the highlight of which is the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood Sunday. Chaz Bono is one of this year’s LA Pride honorees, and actress Molly Ringwald will be grand marshal of the parade.
“We all have to stand up and say we won’t tolerate discrimination — we won’t allow one group of Americans to bw pitted against the other,” Villaraigosa told the crowd at his party. “We believe, in this town, that you ought to be able to get a job, buy a home, marry the person you love.
“My hope is that more people across the nation will agree with Angelinos on those points.”