By Ron Kaye
Special to Calbuzz
Six months ago, Antonio Villaraigosa was riding high with an even-money chance to break the color barrier in the California governor’s office.
He had achieved the closest thing to a political machine in Los Angeles since the Great Depression. At the side of Police Chief Bill Bratton, he boasted LA was safer than at any time since the 1950s, and he declared himself the “greenest mayor” in America. He was, beloved by labor and ready to register as many as 750,000 Latinos across California for the Democratic primary.
Today, his gubernatorial hopes are much in doubt — at best — as he faces the biggest challenge of his political career dealing with the problems L.A. voters elected him to handle just three months ago today.
Here’s a look at some of the big challenges he faces:
Budget: When the bottom fell out of the economy last fall, the bills started coming due for years of overspending on sweetheart union contracts for public employees in L.A.
Suddenly, months into the fiscal year that began last July, the city faced a $150 million deficit. That’s now mushroomed into a projected $500 million shortfall for next year; much of the problem is traceable to public employee pension costs that will reach $2.4 billion in four years – 80 cents per payroll dollar for cops and firefighters and nearly 50 cents per dollar for all other city workers.
Faced with potentially laying off 6,000 city workers – about 15 percent of the workforce – Villaraigosa offered employees lucrative early retirement incentives. But, to the ire of his erstwhile union allies, he withdrew the offer, with agreement apparently just a few hours away. Now, he’s offering up to $50,000 cash buyouts to employees facing layoffs.
Ethics: The pay-to-play scandal involving public employee pension funds that began with the indictment of political consultant Hank Morris in New York has spread to L.A.
A widening investigation, launched by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, touched Villaraigosa’s administration when two men he appointed to the L.A. Fire and Police Pensions board abruptly resigned a few weeks ago. They had been contacted by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which wants to know about income they got from companies doing business with the board. Both said they have done nothing wrong, but a third member said the controversy “tainted” the board.
Not long before, a Villaraigosa appointee to the city’s public retirement system also resigned after revelations that he participated in a fundraiser for a city attorney candidate backed by the mayor, in apparent violation of ethics rules.
Political setbacks: Villaraigosa’s less-than-impressive re-election was twinned with a defeat in a ballot measure campaign to pass what he called “the nation’s largest solar energy initiative.”
He steamrolled the project through the City Council on a unanimous vote in just three weeks, with few questions asked about how many billions it would cost.
Part of the political attraction was that one-third of the project would be owned by L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility, and all the jobs would go to its powerful union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, an ally. Members of the mayor’s political machine who contribute to his campaigns, including lobbyists, consultants and contractors, also would have benefited.
But Villaraigosa strategists blundered by suing citizen activists to gut their argument opposing the solar energy measure in the voters’ pamphlet. They lost in court but succeeded in energizing a grassroots movement that narrowly defeated the initiative in the March 3 election – a rare defeat for the City Hall power structure at the ballot box.
On May 19, grassroots activists scored a second victory by helping outsider Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich score an upset victory in the runoff election for City Attorney over Councilman Jack Weiss, the Villaraigosa-backed candidate whose election would have greatly expanded the mayor’s control of city government.
Emboldened, the network of homeowner groups and Neighborhood Council members are escalating efforts on other issues, including increases in utility rates and other city fees.
In another blow, philanthropist Eli Broad, who stands at the pinnacle of L.A.’s civic elite, publicly chastised Villaraigosa recently, with some advice about running for governor.
“I have not seen the courageous public officeholders in this city . . . who are willing to make courageous decisions that are not based on the politics of the next office they are looking for,” Broad told the LA Times last week.
“Here we have a mayor who’s going to start his next term in, what, 39 days? I hope his next term is one in which he’s not running for office and faces up to the big issues facing the city.”