Economic Development

Mayor in the Middle

During the first week of December 2006, about a dozen Los Angeles hotel workers set up a week-long fast outside the Westin LAX hotel, not far...
by | January 31, 2007

During the first week of December 2006, about a dozen Los Angeles hotel workers set up a week-long fast outside the Westin LAX hotel, not far from the city's huge international airport. The fast, along with its attendant vigils and protest gatherings, was designed to pressure 13 hotels near the airport to stop trying to block a new living-wage ordinance for their employees.

Los Angeles is home to one of the best-organized and most politically sophisticated labor movements in the nation, and the ordinance, calling for a wage floor of $9.39 per hour with health insurance or $10.64 without it, had easily passed the city council the month before. It had the public backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a former union leader. The hotel owners had launched a drive to overturn it by referendum, arguing that the city had no business imposing a living-wage requirement on companies that weren't directly doing business with local government.

On the last afternoon of the protest, Villaraigosa put in an appearance with the workers, to express his support and hand out grape juice as they broke their fast. "The idea that we would honor work and honor the people who do work is as American as apple pie," he declared. "When the tide rises, all boats should rise with that tide."

What was most interesting, however, was what the mayor did not do. He did not call the hotel owners' scheme "disgraceful," as did his friend and ally, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Noenez. In fact, he didn't criticize the owners at all. He simply suggested that the various players sit down with him and hash things out. A few days earlier, Villaraigosa had laid the groundwork for just such a move by assuring business leaders that the living-wage expansion would stop with the airport hotels. "That was a tough decision for him to make," says Bruce Ackerman, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, a leading business-development group in the city. "But he understands that you've got to create coalitions."

What made the decision tough was that Villaraigosa came into office as a partisan, a leader of the city's political left, with a background as a union official, immigrant-rights activist and prominent member of the Latino-labor alliance that remade Los Angeles' political environment in the late 1990s. Restricting the reach of a living-wage law wasn't anything Villaraigosa's loyal supporters put him in office to do.

But his move shouldn't have come as a surprise to them, either. The realities of governing a big city pull almost any mayor to the center. In recent years this has been most obvious with Republican mayors -- New York's Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, and Los Angeles' Richard Riordan -- who have found that the demands placed on them left little room for the extremes of partisanship and ideology that national politics encourages.

While the hallmarks of Giuliani's administration included taming New York City's streets and cutting city government's reach into the economy, he showed little patience for the social conservatism that was increasingly coming to characterize the national GOP. Riordan, while clearly more solicitous of business than his Democratic predecessor, staffed his office with Democrats and ran a markedly non-ideological administration, which is one reason he fared so poorly when he tried to win California's Republican gubernatorial nomination. Bloomberg, a businessman who has presided over New York's economic resurgence, has been perhaps the least ideological of all.

Now, in Villaraigosa, Los Angeles offers the equally intriguing prospect of a mayor steeped in the values of the left but forced to grapple with the cross-cutting demands generated by a complex and fast-changing city. Villaraigosa hasn't by any means turned into a free-marketeer or a business cheerleader, but he is taking pains to court unlikely allies in the interest of moving the city in his direction on key issues. "The powers of an L.A. city mayor are limited overall," he says, "but that can't prevent us from using the office with the purpose of building a consensus around what we need to do."

Most notably, the 53-year-old mayor is laboring to convince each of the diverse segments of this famously fractious city -- black and brown, Asian and Anglo, labor and management, homeless advocates and downtown developers, environmentalists and business executives -- that he takes them seriously. He is casting himself as the city's moderator and chaperone, the champion of its common ground -- and the delineator of where that ground might lie. "He will take an issue and lead from the center," says Larry Frank, one of his aides. "But he'll also do everything in his power to redefine the center."

FORCEFUL START

Villaraigosa started executing that strategy in the summer of 2005, even before he took the oath of office. For the previous year, Los Angeles hotel owners and the city's rambunctious hotel-workers' union had been locked in fruitless wage negotiations. With the summer tourism season getting underway and no resolution in sight, the workers were setting up pickets and the hotel owners were preparing a lockout -- steps that would have been disastrous to a key sector of Los Angeles' economy.

And so, even as he was preparing to take over the mayoralty from James Hahn, the man he'd beaten in the election the month before, Villaraigosa called both sides into city hall, stashed them in different offices, and spent two sleepless nights shuttling back and forth hammering out an agreement. "This is a great day for Los Angeles," he said when he emerged at 5:30 on a Saturday morning to announce the deal. "What I hope now is that we all work together to bring tourists back to Los Angeles."

It was a stroke that established Villaraigosa's reputation as a problem-solver and demonstrated that an era of staid and somewhat removed mayoral leadership was over. The alternative LA Weekly, noting that Villaraigosa had been an uninspiring member of the city council before he ran an unremarkable campaign for mayor, declared in astonishment that "it was as if a mild-mannered business-as-usual politician had ducked into a phone booth to rip off his street clothes and reveal the superhero hiding inside."

That early move made an equally strong impression on the city's somewhat nervous business community, which had come to see Villaraigosa as an arm of the labor movement. They had reason to see him that way. Starting out in politics as an immigrant-rights activist, Villaraigosa went on to become a field organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, then president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and of the L.A. local of the American Federation of Government Employees. Both before and after he moved on to the state Assembly in 1995, he was closely allied with Miguel Contreras, the legendary head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, who forged low-wage Latino service workers into an organized political and economic force.

In fact, though, Villaraigosa's instinct for the center -- or at least for conciliation -- had been part of his earlier career as well. During two years as Democratic speaker of the Assembly in the late 1990s, he worked with Republicans on major legislation, including a gargantuan $9.2 billion school bond measure that was beset by some of the most aggressive constituencies in California politics. "As speaker, he had to moderate his own personal political views to move the state's agenda forward," says John Perez, political director of one of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Los Angeles-area locals (and Villaraigosa's cousin). "It was an important lesson that he couldn't just be there as an advocate for his friends."

RACIAL SENSITIVITIES

In truth, no mayor of Los Angeles with ambitions for his own political future -- which Villaraigosa clearly has -- can afford to see the life of the city in zero-sum terms or even to let others cast it that way. Since the disappearance of its once-mighty aerospace and automobile manufacturing industries, the city's economy has excelled at creating low-end and high-end jobs but hasn't done much for the middle class; the Los Angeles metro area now ranks last among 100 metropolitan areas in its percentage of middle-income neighborhoods, according to a 2006 Brookings Institution study.

So rebuilding L.A.'s middle class by raising the wages of the city's vast low-income workforce, as Villaraigosa's union and progressive allies want, makes sense; but then, so does the business community's argument that buttressing entertainment and trade-related industries and encouraging construction and development, which are fast becoming mainstays of the local economy, are vital to its future. At the same time, the city's complex and ever-changing demographic makeup means that its various racial and ethnic communities are acutely sensitive to how city government and the mayor treat them. A mayor who adopts a "my friends win, you lose" attitude is just asking for trouble.

Which is one reason Villaraigosa has made a strenuous effort to win support in the city's black community. This hasn't been an easy task. Blacks were deeply disturbed by Hahn's decision in 2004 to fire Bernard Parks, the city's first African-American police chief. It was in part because of Parks' firing that Hahn lost the mayoral election to Villaraigosa in 2005. But Villaraigosa, as a Latino, started out with problems of his own in the black neighborhoods. "The overwhelming fact of the city is the rise of Latinos," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. "And what's significant about Villaraigosa is that as the first Latino mayor, he could have been an ethnocentric politician." But, as Sonenshein says, that was not what the new mayor wanted to be.

Villaraigosa gave a perfect illustration of this in his handling of a lawsuit against the city brought by a black firefighter who alleged racial discrimination in a firehouse hazing incident. The city council initially agreed to a $2.7 million settlement, but Villaraigosa vetoed it, arguing that the settlement was financially irresponsible. With the council's black members refusing to go along and the NAACP labeling the veto "an outrage," the issue had the potential to spiral out of control: A black firefighter, in a department with a long history of racism, had been denied recompense by a Latino mayor.

But Villaraigosa quickly recast the matter, arguing that the real issue was a culture of harassment within the fire department, one that was costing the city millions in payouts to aggrieved firefighters. He dismissed the white fire chief and named a respected black fire department veteran in his place, giving him an explicit charge to instill a more respectful culture. The firefighter's lawsuit continues, but it has lost its explosive spark. "You see an outcry from black leadership on issues like this, but Antonio was very smart about how he handled everything," says state Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass, a black Democrat who has known Villaraigosa for three decades.

There have been times, to be sure, when Villaraigosa's something-for-everyone approach has been criticized as little more than sharp deal-making. When the owner of downtown's premier existing hotel held up a new convention-center hotel project by threatening to sue to stop the city from subsidizing it, Villaraigosa settled the matter by agreeing that the owner could convert one-third of his hotel's rooms to lucrative condos in exchange for dropping his challenge. Then, when hotel workers complained that the move would cost them jobs, Villaraigosa agreed to promote the unionization of other downtown hotels. "New mayor, but same old L.A. business as usual," sniffed the Los Angeles Daily News.

Or, perhaps, it was just an ability to focus on larger goals. Villaraigosa has made a priority of redeveloping downtown Los Angeles, long a downscale shadow of its more robust counterparts in other cities. He has promoted and helped to shape two multibillion-dollar projects he hopes will inject new residential, entertainment and commercial life into the city's core. One central piece of these plans is to rejuvenate the city's convention center -- "our convention center is a dog," admits one of the mayor's aides -- and the convention-center hotel is a keystone of that effort. The three-way deal may have been business as usual, in other words, but it removed a troublesome stumbling block to Villaraigosa's vision for his city.

"He is eager to show people he can represent other perspectives," says Eric Garcetti, president of the city council and a Villaraigosa ally. "He isn't easy to pin down as knee-jerk on anything."

HOUSING DILEMMAS

Villaraigosa has, in truth, been quite open about his goals. He wants to develop downtown. He wants a greener city, both literally and figuratively, one more densely built and less auto-dependent. He wants to change the cultures of the police and fire departments. He wants to reform the city bureaucracy, making it more efficient and responsive. And he wants to defuse the racial and ethnic tensions that have made Los Angeles a tinderbox in the past. This is hardly a radical agenda, although you wouldn't mistake it for a Chamber of Commerce wish list either.

As gentrification has become a top-tier issue in many neighborhoods, Villaraigosa has made affordable workforce housing a priority. "The fabric of our community is weakened," he says, "every time a fire-fighter or a nurse decides they can't afford to live here anymore." To keep those workers in town, the mayor pushed hard for a billion-dollar affordable-housing bond measure on last November's ballot; it drew majority support but narrowly failed to get the two-thirds vote it needed to pass. He worked with the city's public pension funds to have them invest in workforce housing; and has made the creation of affordable units a required part of any residential development using city subsidies. Villaraigosa also put $100 million into a housing trust fund for permanent supportive housing for the homeless. Those efforts all speak to Villaraigosa's progressive legacy and his desire to push the "center" toward the left.

But other choices on the same front point to the mayor's pragmatism about how far he can go. His old allies on the left have lobbied hard for a so-called "inclusionary zoning" measure, which would require residential projects -- even if they're 100 percent privately funded -- to include developer-subsidized affordable units. The idea is anathema to the city's business leadership, and Villaraigosa has shown no desire to see a showdown between the two sides. "I support inclusionary zoning," he says, "but I believe it's important that we craft an ordinance that has broad support, including support from the business community. I'm committed to working with the business community and the affordable-housing community to ensure that we come up with something that's balanced. There's no other way to do this."

Meanwhile, Villaraigosa has pushed city departments to think about ways to leverage private gain into public benefit. With immense pressure coming from developers to rezone industrial land for residential uses, the city has launched an effort to inventory the industrial land that is up for grabs, determine what impact rezoning it will have on well-paying industrial jobs, and then explore ways for residential developers to make up for the loss of those jobs should the land get rezoned. "Once a piece of industrial-zoned land converts to residential, it's gone forever," says Cecilia Estolano, director of the city's Community Redevelopment Authority. "Shouldn't we derive some small proportion of the increase in value the developers are getting for it?"

EVERYWHERE AT ONCE

Villaraigosa's tone and tactics may have turned moderate, but one thing about him remains extreme: his energy level. He seems to be everywhere at once: handing out toys to kids in Watts; speaking at a B'nai B'rith luncheon on the Westside; huddling with business executives downtown; appearing on Spanish- and English-language television stations; presiding over announcements of economic development projects large and small; presenting Section 8 housing vouchers to poor families; traveling to police and fire stations to meet with their officers; showing up at community parades and neighborhood tree-decorating parties in even the most far-flung corners of his immense city.

"His definition of a day has four, five, even six more hours to it than most people's," says Robin Kramer, his chief of staff. That might be seen as obligatory praise, except that more objective observers are saying the same thing. "His presence has been unparalleled," says Bruce Ackerman, whose San Fernando-based business group has lamented the lack of attention from previous administrations. "I have never seen another mayor with the presence out here that he's had."

It isn't just energy that is making Villaraigosa a strong mayor; it's a rewritten city charter. The original charter was designed nearly a century ago to dilute central authority, parceling it out among the city council and a set of boards and commissions that have direct responsibility for city departments. In the late 1990s, however, the charter was changed to give the mayor the power to hire and fire the 44 department heads, called "general managers." Hahn never really used this new-found authority, but Villaraigosa has embraced it. "I can't overstate his impact on the department heads," says Bill Fujioka, Los Angeles' highly regarded and independent-minded chief administrative officer, who retired in December. "It's hard to say that he's asked people to leave, because that's confidential, but, well, a lot of people have left."

While Villaraigosa has put in place only a relative handful of his own general managers, he has brought wholesale change to the boards and commissions that oversee city departments. And he has used his appointments to internalize the careful balancing act that he is pursuing as mayor. The board of the Community Redevelopment Agency is a sterling example. It includes Perez, the union political director, along with Madeline Janis, who spearheaded the unions' living-wage campaign for low-income workers during the 1990s; on the other hand, it is chaired by Bill Jackson, a high-profile commercial real estate lawyer, and includes business advocate Ackerman. The result is that while the CRA board has pushed developers to agree to contracts that create some "public benefit" -- affordable-housing units, public space, training programs for construction workers -- it has not gone as far as some of its more left-leaning members would like.

At the same time, Villaraigosa has set out to reform city operations. He has been holding monthly meetings with the 44 general managers -- some of whom used to go for years, or entire administrations, without meeting the mayor -- to make sure they're following his directions. He has demanded $15 million to $20 million per year from the city bureaucracy in new efficiencies, and put in place a cross-departmental team to develop performance and accountability measures on his priorities.

All of this, says City Controller Laura Chick, who is independently elected, is not just vital, but urgent. "My verdict on L.A. city government is we are anything but cutting-edge, state of the art, best-practices or a role-model city," she says. "We're stuck in the '70s and '80s in our use of technology, in management practices and in infrastructure -- in the human infrastructure needed to run a role-model city." And while she acknowledges that there is a long way to go, she says that under Villaraigosa, "we're making progress across the board."

The administrative reforms are important not only for reasons of efficiency but also as a signal to the business establishment that whatever the mayor's background may be, he knows how to run an organization. The signal seems to be coming through. "I've been playing in this arena now for 25 years," says Ackerman, "and I've never seen anybody function in the role of a municipal CEO as he has."

Still, there are limits to what any of these strategies can accomplish. If Villaraigosa has a single top priority, it is improving the city's public schools. Himself a high-school dropout who credits one teacher with picking him up and helping him get to college, he considers reforming public education the linchpin for everything else he is trying to do. "We will not compete in a global economy if our kids cannot read or write," he says. "We will not be able to grow and prosper together if half our kids drop out and can't read a bus schedule when they graduate." And so he spent a huge amount of time, energy and political capital during his first year in office trying to get control of the city's public schools, which are run by the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Eventually, he was able to get the legislature to enact a law giving him limited control. But that measure was tossed out at the end of December by a state superior court judge -- the first true setback of his tenure, although Villaraigosa has vowed to take advantage of upcoming school board elections to install a slate favorable to his goals.

In the next few months, Villaraigosa will be facing an even sterner test, as he negotiates with the two chief city employee unions on new contracts. Union members, sensing an opportunity, are pressing hard for better wages and changes in working conditions; they are determined to bring themselves on par with employees at the city's Department of Water and Power, a quasi-independent agency whose employees have one of the richest contracts in the country. Villaraigosa, who talks constantly about the city's $247 million structural deficit, is just as determined to keep a lid on the final contract.

It is, of course, an ironic position for a mayor who used to run a government employees' union. But it is one that places Villaraigosa in the center -- where he feels he needs to be to maintain a coalition that can move his priorities. Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the county Federation of Labor and a friend of the mayor's for 30 years, believes that if both sides can avoid taking extreme positions, negotiations will succeed. "He's not a union leader anymore, he's the mayor," she says. "That means he's got to juggle a lot of issues and concerns."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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