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Antonio Villaraigosa Is a Political Greenhorn Who Won His First Legislative Election 3 1/2 Years Ago. Today He's Speaker of the State Assembly. Now, About Those Growing Pains.

August 02, 1998|JENIFER WARREN | Jenifer Warren is a Times staff writer in the Sacramento bureau. She last wrote about the controversy over mountain biking on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County

The speaker is late. Southwest Airlines has deposited him in Burbank way behind schedule and now the whole damn evening is on the cusp of collapse. As he plows through the crowded terminal, 300 people are settling into auditorium seats over on L.A.'s Westside, where he is due to hold forth at some highbrow forum titled "Visions for the New Millennium." The event begins in 24 minutes. The drive from Burbank will take twice that, at best.

Hopping into his black Ford Explorer, the speaker peeks hopefully at his watch. "I hate to be late," he says. "I hate it, I hate it, I hate it."

His problems don't end there. Foraging through his briefcase, the speaker cannot find his speech. "Visions" is a big-time affair--prominent spectators, TV coverage, hefty topics. He has just become czar of the California State Assembly, and he knows that first impressions count. He wants--and wants very badly--to come off as accomplished, poised. The missing speech is no small concern.

He picks up the car phone and dials his Capitol office.

Speaker: Get me Zeiger, please.

Receptionist: Who's calling?

Speaker: It's me, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Receptionist: Uh, I'm sorry, who's calling?

The speaker's broad brow stiffens, a flash of exasperation shadows his youthful face. He repeats his name, insistently now, but it's no use.

Receptionist: No, really, who is this?

His name is Antonio Villaraigosa, and if you have never heard of him, you are not alone. A child of California's term-limits movement, he is a political greenhorn, a nimble, scrappy but untested lawmaker who won his first legislative election a mere 3 1/2 years ago.

Now, suddenly, Villaraigosa is one of the three mightiest men in state government. One minute, he's dueling with the governor on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." The next, he's influencing how California spends its budget of $76 billion a year. Pundits predict that if he shines as speaker, he could become mayor of Los Angeles, his hometown.

An impetuous, charming and unusually frank politician, Villaraigosa came from nothing and is now definitely something. A former student rebel, union organizer and lifelong outsider, he is today very much on the inside, a genuine Establishment guy. His enormous Capitol office brims with antiques. A state driver takes him wherever he wants to go. Society's most powerful players--from Vice President Al Gore to bank presidents and titans of the entertainment world--are clamoring for two minutes of his time.

All this begs the question: Is Antonio Villaraigosa--age 45, the first speaker from Los Angeles in a quarter-century--prepared for the job? Most politicians would toss back an unequivocal yes, emphasizing their tactical brilliance, perhaps, or their leadership prowess. Others would obfuscate, veer

down a side stream into less perilous waters. Not Villaraigosa. Call it a deft use of candor, call it rookie recklessness, but he handles the query this way:

"Am I prepared? Absolutely not," he says without pause. "But we live in the era of term limits, where all of us are amateurs. The fact is, I got the job. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

*

There are some things you should know about Antonio Villaraigosa. He was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of another. His arms bore tattoos--"Born to Raise Hell," "Tony (heart) Arlene"--until his young son showed an alarming interest in the marks, and Villaraigosa paid doctors thousands of dollars to laser them off. He was tried for--and acquitted of--assault after a 1977 fight in an L.A. restaurant. He earned a law degree but failed to pass the state bar exam despite four tries. He fathered two children with two girlfriends before he was 25, and he drank, inhaled and admits to other sins most politicians are too chicken to confess.

There are some other things you should know about Antonio Villaraigosa. His friends would run barefoot over broken glass for him, as he would for them. He is godfather to 10 children. He outworks nearly everyone in a profession where workaholics abound. He is a hugger with a halogen smile and a habit of grasping your hand in both of his.

Oh, and another thing: Antonio Ramon Villaraigosa grew up so poor that he put strips of cardboard in his shoes when the soles wore out.

*

The speaker is angry, positively steamed. It is a bright spring morning and the Assembly is at full boil, brawling over 1,309 bills. The phone rings, and an aide reports that crucial legislation to reform bilingual education is failing in committee. "Jesus Christ!" Villaraigosa roars. "Are these people stupid??!!"

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