Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SF Chronicle: LA Mayor Villaraigosa ponders future, takes on big issues

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa takes on big issues

Copyright San Francisco Chronicle

 
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is reluctant to tackle questions about his political future in California.
 
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has tackled a number of tough urban issues lately - averting a traffic gridlock "Carmageddon," pushing for public-private job creation with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, urging reforms to the state's landmark tax measure, Proposition 13, and testifying before Congress in support of federal transportation bills.

But Villaraigosa, who is one of the nation's leading Latino politicians, a former Assembly speaker and the newly named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is reluctant to tackle questions about his political future in California, such as whether he's a potential candidate for U.S. Senate or governor.

"I'm operating as if this was the end of the line," Villaraigosa said over lunch in San Francisco recently. "I'm at a place where I may be riding into the sunset. ... I'm not one of the people who have to be in public office."

After losing the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary to James Hahn, Villaraigosa said, "I saw there was life after this."

Still, as he enters the last two years of his second and final term, Villaraigosa hardly appears ready to "ride into the sunset." Among his recent moves:

-- Delivering tough cuts as chief executive of the nation's second-largest city, slashing 4,600 jobs and reducing services in Los Angeles' $6.9 billion budget. Mayors "can't afford to be ideologues," he said. "To balance the budget, you actually have to make the cuts."

-- Talking up reform of Prop. 13, the 1978 tax reform initiative that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recently called the "third rail" - untouchable - of California politics. Villaraigosa is expected to take on the measure's commercial taxation formula in a speech next month before the Sacramento Press Club.

-- As head of the national mayors group, calling for a pullout from the costly war in Afghanistan, arguing that such a move would put billions of dollars back into infrastructure and jobs in U.S. cities that he said are under the "greatest economic threat since the Great Depression."

-- Working closely with San Francisco Mayor Lee to support U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's bill creating America Fast Forward, a program that mayors say could provide more than a million jobs a year in the United States and build infrastructure without contributing to the national debt.

Villaraigosa has riled some labor leaders, arguing recently that reforms to teacher tenure and seniority and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare must be included in a discussion of getting state and federal spending under control.

Overcoming setbacks

The moves underscore how Villaraigosa looks to be re-emerging from political setbacks, including a much-publicized affair with a Univision TV reporter that broke up his marriage, to take on a new leadership role that some observers suggest is a springboard to bigger venues.

"Antonio is a man of passion - and at times it's gotten the better of him," said former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg, who has also advised the mayor as a political strategist. "But he always bounces back. I think it's because people understand how much he cares. He's got a great heart, and he's not afraid to lead with it."

But GOP strategist Bettina Inclan, an expert in Latino politics, argues that the mayor is also "a walking negative stereotype," citing Villaraigosa's past personal problems as evidence of a lack of judgment.

"In all his years in office, Mayor Villaraigosa is better known for his personal scandals and ethics violations than for improving Los Angeles or creating jobs," she said. "Latino voters want someone they can look up to, and Mayor Villaraigosa has routinely come up short."

Going high profile

But such criticisms don't appear to faze Villaraigosa - or dull his efforts to take a high profile.

A tireless campaigner for Democratic former U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential race, the Los Angeles mayor seems eager to assume a front-row position in President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

Last week, aiming to upstage GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney after he slammed Obama on economic issues in a campaign trip to Los Angeles, Villaraigosa said Romney had the "gall" to talk about job-creation when Massachusetts was "47th out of 50" in that area when Romney served as governor of that state.

The White House has noticed Villaraigosa's work. David Agnew, deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, called Villaraigosa a valued partner in spotlighting urban issues, pushing green technology and improving the nation's economy.

As head of the mayors' conference, Villaraigosa is "already providing strong leadership," Agnew said. "He's opened up very quickly, making sure America's mayors are having more of a place at the table in the national debate. ... The president gives them time. They know we're committed to the partnership."

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