A Progressive Star

If you follow California politics closely, you've probably heard the buzz that the reason the Democratic legislature has been willing to make so nice with ...
by | September 13, 2006

Villa If you follow California politics closely, you've probably heard the buzz that the reason the Democratic legislature has been willing to make so nice with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lately, after he picked on them all last year, is that they wouldn't especially mind his winning another term. He'd be term-limited out in 2010 and, according to this train of thought, that would leave the top job wide open for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

What makes Villaraigosa such a hot prospect that he's already winning the ultimate (if silliest) political compliment -- speculation about his plans four or five years down the road?

The former state Assembly speaker lost his run for mayor in 2001, but came back to win last year. He started making his mark right away. He broke a deadlock (fifth item) that had been holding up an $11 billion expansion of the airport for years, mainly by forcing representatives from all sides to sit in a room until they could come up with a deal.

"When he took over as mayor, he actually fulfilled his campaign promise," Ruth Galanter, a former LA city councilwoman, told me. "He said, make the lawsuit go away and move forward."

Villaraigosa is better known for his quest to take control of the public schools. His success at wresting at least partial control is probably the main reason he was so tepid in his endorsement last week of Phil Angelides, Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent. But, having inherited a deficit of nearly $300 million, he has to like Schwarzenegger's aggressive push for huge new infrastructure bonds as well.

Villaraigosa may be best known nationwide for his ethnicity. He landed on the cover of Newsweek shortly after winning (the headline was "A Latino Power Surge") and was a prominent participant in some of this spring's pro-immigrant rallies.

But he has also taken care of many mundane matters that are part and parcel of any mayor's job. He persuaded the city council to more than double trash pickup fees in order to allow the police department to hire 1,000 more cops. He launched a Million Trees initiative this past spring in order to make LA more shady. And he intervened to save a $4.2 billion convention center hotel that was held up by a labor dispute.

Four Occidental College professors who wrote an interesting and informative if perhaps overly flattering profile of Villaraigosa for Dissent praise him as a hero of leftist causes. They get quite carried away, in fact.

"Villaraigosa and his allies hope to demonstrate hope to demonstrate that a polyglot city like L.A. can be well managed and serve as a laboratory of progressive policy reform," the professors conclude. "If they succeed, they may be laying the groundwork for the next New Deal."

I don't think it's necessary to hail Villaraigosa as the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt -- or even as a likely candidate for governor a term or so down the road. For now, it's enough to note that he's certainly trying out some interesting ideas and has won some notable successes during his still-short stint as mayor of Los Angeles.