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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Villaraigosa's Wide Spectrum of Support

January 26, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's an American story, an L.A. story: A barrio street kid--booted out of high school, motivated by his mom and a buddy--grows up to be speaker of the state Assembly.

As he's about to become speaker, his buddy also is elected to the Assembly.

"I pinch myself," says speaker-designate Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). "Who would have thought, except my mom?"

"I still feel like we're two kids from Boyle Heights," says the high school buddy, new Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). "Hey, who would have thought?"

It's an ethnic story, too: About Latinos continuing to move up the political ladder--to the level, Villaraigosa hopes, where he's not considered a Latino speaker, but a speaker "who happens to be Latino." Like some pol of Italian or Irish ancestry.

"I'm proud of who I am," he says, "but in order for me to strengthen the speakership, I can't be just a Latino speaker. I have to be a speaker who's bringing in everybody."

Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) became California's first Latino speaker after the 1996 election. But a bit of a backlash has developed among non-Latino Democratic legislators, some admit privately.

They complain that Bustamante surrounded himself with too many Latinos. They resented muscle-flexing by the Latino caucus--13 Democrats in the Assembly, four in the Senate. It's one reason why Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), the Latino caucus chairman, never got anywhere running for Senate president pro tem. Some felt threatened by Latino spoils, particularly looking ahead to the 2001 redistricting.

"Antonio was able to build a speakership from outside of the Latino caucus," says one white supporter. "If he had gone with the Latino strategy, he would not have won the speakership."

Bustamante is termed-out after this year and is running for lieutenant governor. He had hoped to hang on as speaker until summer, but is being pushed and has agreed to step down Feb. 26. Last week, Democrats unanimously selected Villaraigosa, 45, the majority floor leader, to be the next speaker. A confirmation floor vote is expected today.


For Villaraigosa, it has been a long road with many bridges and potholes. The roughest part, he says, was as a preschooler watching his alcoholic father "beat my mother to a pulp, a bloody pulp. You never, ever forget that." Villaraigosa was 5 when his dad walked out, leaving a wife and three kids. He and his father have had very little contact since.

The poor boy from East L.A. shined shoes, sold newspapers, swept floors and was coaxed by his mom--a state government secretary--to read books. "Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, 'Moby Dick,' all that stuff," Villaraigosa recalls. "I was a very well-read kid. I was just alienated, just lost. I got horrible grades."

He was kicked out of Cathedral High School and started hanging around Roosevelt. There he met Cedillo.

"Here comes this bright guy, very charismatic, high-energy," Cedillo remembers. "He had a car--a Chevy Malibu, definitely in the low-rider class. We'd cruise; on Saturday nights probably go to a wedding dance."

Villaraigosa worked as a box boy. Cedillo played varsity football and on Saturdays participated in a War on Poverty program--Upward Bound--at UCLA. Villaraigosa drove him there and waited in the library. "I just read," he says. "Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley."

He got focused, returned to school--night and day--went to East L.A. Community College and wound up as Cedillo's roommate at UCLA, where they both graduated.

Villaraigosa became a labor leader--for government workers, teachers--and was a local ACLU president before being elected to the Assembly in 1994. Two of his bills stand out: one ensuring health care for children of low-income workers, and another guaranteeing women the right to breast-feed in public.


If Villaraigosa plays this right and Democrats retain their majority in November, he'll be speaker until he's termed-out in 2000. That should be good for L.A., which hasn't had a speaker in 24 years.

"I have to represent the whole state," he says, "but there's no question that I'm going to do what's fair for L.A. County."

Here, fair can be read as best. Villaraigosa may run for L.A. mayor someday.

As speaker, he's sure to be more decisive than Bustamante; also more of a "reward and punish" disciplinarian. "We can't have what we had last year," he says. "I want to bring some stability to this place . . . [and] some civility."

Villaraigosa still is writing his story. The theme so far: Don't give up on people. Motivate them, especially to read.

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