Economic Development

Evolution of a Mayor

Governing Correspondent Rob Gurwitt went to Los Angeles to get a feel for the politics and policies of its mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. I talked with...
by | January 31, 2007

Governing Correspondent Rob Gurwitt went to Los Angeles to get a feel for the politics and policies of its mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. I talked with Rob to find out what he learned.

Your view of the story seemed to change as you worked on it -- you saw Villaraigosa at first as kind of an ideological politician coming in from the left, and you went out to LA and found him trying to establish a base in the center and using it to govern. Is that the right way to put it?

Well, yes and no.

What attracted me to writing about Villaraigosa is that his background is, indeed, firmly on the left, which has not been common in high-profile urban leaders in recent years. As someone I spoke with in LA said, "He's not just a liberal do-gooder, he comes out of an ideological wing of the Latino movement" shaped by a legendary organizer named Burt Corona, whom progressives in Los Angeles consider to be the urban counterpart to Cesar Chavez.

So what got me into the story was the question of what happens when someone with that background has to govern a city like Los Angeles -- to deal with potholes, traffic congestion, economic development, ambitious developers, crime, homelessness and all the other street-level matters that confront any major city. And to do it all with a huge city bureaucracy under a charter that ties the hands of the mayor by making him work through appointed boards and commissions, rather than having direct authority over city departments.

Do you think his goals are different now, or he just trying to accomplish the same things in different ways?

I don't think there's any question that Villaraigosa's priorities are informed by his ideology. He's pushed hard on making the Port of Los Angeles more environmentally friendly; he's made affordable housing and development in the poorest neighborhoods of South LA a key part of his agenda; he's trying to find solutions to homelessness that don't just involve police roundups or making life so uncomfortable for them that they head to another jurisdiction. But as you point out, his approach to all this is to try to bring as many interests along with him as possible, which could be thought of as governing from the center, or simply as good politics.

Yet to some degree, questions of left, right and center seem extraneous. He spent the first 18 months of his tenure making his signature effort his bid to take over the LA schools, which puts him in company with Chicago's Richard Daley and New York's Michael Bloomberg. And now, rebuffed by a judge, he's allowed his attention to turn to fighting the city's brown vs. black gang violence -- putting him not so much in the center as on the side of human decency.

Speaking of black vs. brown, Villaraigosa came in not only as a left-leaning mayor, but as the first Latino mayor in the city's history. How has the black community reacted to him?

By and large, quite well -- in no small part because Villaraigosa has been solicitous of black leaders and voters. He's spent a lot of time in South LA, and when U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters expressed some displeasure with his approach to taking over the schools, he met with her and made the rounds of six black churches on a single Sunday -- not long afterward, he got the enthusiastic public backing of a host of black ministers for his plan. As I mention in the story, he also defused an outcry over his veto of a huge payoff to a black firefighter who'd been hazed by naming a black fire chief.

He's got his critics in the black community -- people who feel, for instance, that while he focused on the schools he allowed violence in general and gang violence in particular to get out of hand. Even there, though, Villaraigosa doesn't let any public relations opportunities slip by; he made a point of marching with African-American families in a neighborhood where a 14-year-old black girl had been killed by a Latino gang.

Still, black-brown relations constitute a minefield in LA right now that goes far beyond gang violence. Areas of South LA that were black for generations are increasingly Latino, and Latinos are moving into positions of power and influence throughout the city. Even the union movement is split -- blacks tend to be heavily represented in certain public employee unions, while Latinos make up the bulk of the private-sector service unions. The awareness of social change, and African Americans' fear of being edged aside, permeate even the smallest day-to-day interactions in the city, and I'd imagine that Villaraigosa will have to walk this tightwire for his entire tenure in office.

One last question, an obvious one, I suppose: What lessons do you draw from all this about other cities, and especially about mayors who come into office carrying some ideological luggage of one sort or another?

Truth is, I think it's the rare mayor who doesn't come into office with some sort of ideological luggage. But what's noticeable about mayors is that in recent years, while the national and even state-level political worlds were in the throes of ideological battle, big-city leaders didn't join in. They couldn't really afford to -- not when they could see the problems they were dealing with on their streets every day. Cities are great testing grounds for ideas, because they either work or they don't, and a mayor's going to hear about it quickly either way.

I argue in the story that by virtue of their complexity, cities exert their a sort of centripetal force -- that's the opposite of "centrifugal" -- and pull things toward the center. But I think there's something else. In this day and age, making progress in a city depends on so many other people -- developers, unions, neighborhood groups, churches, community leaders, foundations, key business leaders, environmental groups -- that mayors who alienate key constituencies through ideology are bound either to fail or to fall short of their goals.

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