By Ron Kaye
Calbuzz Special Report
I lunched with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over corned beef sandwiches at a San Fernando Valley deli in 2006 – days after the City Council approved a $3 million settlement with a black firefighter who was tricked into eating spaghetti laced with dog food.
The idea of paying that kind of money for a stupid fire station prank stirred a heated controversy in L.A, even if the Fire Department had a record of racially discriminatory practices. Villaraigosa appeared ready to sign off on that settlement.
As he climbed into his SUV to leave, I couldn’t keep myself from teasing him by saying, “Whatever happened to that punk from East LA? He never would agree to pay $3 million to a guy for eating dog food.”
Antonio turned around with that great grin of his and said, “We’ll see.” A few days later, he vetoed the settlement, just about the only time he’s overruled the council in the go-along, get-along world of LA City Hall.
Three years later, though, I’m still asking the same question: What ever happened to that punk from East LA?
Antonio Villaraigosa brought a sense of excitement and hope for change to a troubled city when he was elected mayor in 2005. His charm and charisma brought large crowds to meetings where he spoke. Even conservative business people lined up to shake his hand and wish him well.
Today, it’s hard to find anyone who’s in love with Antonio. Even mayoral insiders are often disparaging, at least in private. As one prominent civic leader told me recently, “He’s never asked me or anyone else I know for advice and help. He’s gone his own way and we’ve gone ours.”
Running for re-election in March against a bunch of nobodies with no money, Antonio got just 55 percent of the vote and community activists defeated his heavily-financed solar energy measure — an ill-conceived and costly boondoggle – that was to be the heart of his claim to be the “greenest big-city mayor in America.”
Saying what so many people now believe, LA Magazine this week created a stir by putting Antonio on its June cover with the word “Failure.” Beneath that were the words: “So much promise. So much disappointment.”
Editor Kit Rachlis asked a lot of people, including me, what advice they would give the mayor for his second term.
I offered this: “I keep thinking he’ll wake up one morning in his mayoral mansion and wonder what he’s doing there as if it were just a dream, that he’ll remember where he came from and who he once was and realize he’s just a punk from East LA who doesn’t put the rich and powerful and famous on a pedestal and take such pleasure in having become one of them.”
Antonio never stood a chance in the governor’s race, and with the stigma of “failure” haunting him, I don’t see how his campaign can ever get off the ground.
LA’s massive budget deficit that could well bankrupt the city as it worsens in the next three years and the groundswell of discontent against him make it all but impossible to explain why he’s the right man to fix what’s broken in Sacramento.
With his fancy suits and love of fine wine and food, his servants and bodyguards, his multi-millionaire’s lifestyle, Villaraigosa has lost connection with his roots, where he came from, and the ideals he once held dear.
He’s become a showman and his politics all show business. He provides us with theater about great schools, gang-free streets and a green revolution, but little or nothing really changes. The schools remain a dismal failure; crime is down but the gangs deal drugs with impunity, and LA still has the nation’s most polluted air, worst traffic congestion and dirtiest power plants.
Change, if it ever comes, is still far off in the future but the entertainer in him performs as if the applause of flattering audiences is the same as achieving something grand.
It’s a pity, a waste of a talent that could have brought the people of LA together to do great things, create a great city. Many now dismiss the mayor as a man without substance, a narcissist driven by his ego and need for self-aggrandizement.
That’s true enough, but it’s true of a lot of other politicians too. In my heart of hearts, I still cling to the notion that there is more to him, that the man I’ve had long rambling chats with is capable of rising above the users and sycophants who surround him.
His ego need won’t be served by running for governor. His real opportunity is to finally get down to work as mayor, trying to make life a little better every day for the four million people who call LA home.
Ron Kaye is the former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, where he spent 23 years helping the paper become the voice of the San Fernando Valley. In the year since he left the Daily News, he has blogged about city issues at ronkayela.com and helped found the Saving LA Project, a loose-knit coalition of community groups citywide. He is working on the launch of OurLA.org, a non-profit online community-based newspaper.