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COLUMN ONE

A Speaker Raising His Voice

Facing term limits in the Assembly, unabashed liberal Antonio Villaraigosa could become the first Latino mayor of modern L.A. If only the public knew his name.

May 18, 1999|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Antonio Villaraigosa operates at the apex of California politics' new arc.

He has risen farther, faster than any previous politician to achieve the office of Assembly speaker, arguably the second-most important job in the state's public life. He is a dynamic and unabashedly liberal standard-bearer for a fresh new generation of Latino leaders. He talks at least once a day, sometimes more frequently, with Gov. Gray Davis. He he has broken fund-raising records on behalf of California Democrats, and he regularly turns up at the elbow of Mayor Richard Riordan.

But when Villaraigosa sits down to guzzle a cup of coffee in a mid-Wilshire fast-food joint, the waitresses and passersby come and go without giving him so much as a glance. Here, he is more noticeable for his impeccable suit than for the power he wields over state government.

"I'm still not well known here," he acknowledged in a recent interview. "But in conversations I've had, I'll tell you, I think there's a sense of motion. People can feel it."

Villaraigosa doesn't say whom he's been talking to, but in certain circles, he's the talk of the town. What passes for the Los Angeles political establishment--the compact community of elected officials, consultants and aides that congregates around local government and its leaders--is fascinated by Villaraigosa and by the possibility that he may join the race for mayor in 2001. The big questions: Will he run? Can he win? Is the city ready to elect its first Latino chief executive of modern times?

Villaraigosa, who got the speakership because term limits pushed out members with more experience but who now faces being forced out himself, sounds ready to try out some answers.

"My focus has to be on my job," he said, "but I'd be [misleading] you if I said I wasn't thinking about my future. I am."

For better and for worse, Villaraigosa represents a clean break from much of the Los Angeles political establishment. He's impetuous where City Atty. James K. Hahn is methodical, brash where county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is cautious, pragmatic where county Supervisor Gloria Molina is unbending, unapologetically a man of the left when the rest of the pack clusters around the middle.

He's also, in the minds of the electorate, an essentially invisible character with a nearly unpronouncable name. (It's Vee-ya-ra-go-sah.)

A Times poll last month found Villaraigosa at the most distant margins of the public's attention. Eight of 10 Los Angeles residents either have never heard of Villaraigosa or feel they don't know enough to have an opinion about him; even three-fourths of Latinos are in the dark about the man who aspires to become modern Los Angeles' first Latino mayor.

"The only thing many people know about him is his name," said one political insider. "And they don't think much of that."

A Tongue Twister in English and Spanish

Villaraigosa is not a common name in any language because it's an invention, a melding of his surname, Villar, and that of his wife, Corina Raigosa. The result is a tongue-twister as uncomfortable to pronounce in Spanish as it is in English.

Behind the name is a politician unorthodox by almost any contemporary measure. His candor and unabashed love of politics stand out in a political universe that generally favors caution and anti-politician rhetoric. In a time in which most of his colleagues reject ideology in favor of flexibility, Villaraigosa moves in the opposite direction.

He is a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. He opposes the death penalty and wants Proposition 187, the state initiative that sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving an array of public services and benefits, to die a quiet death. He supports organized labor--and is supported by it in turn. He's willing to consider higher taxes, if that's what it takes to make California's schools great again. In speeches across the state, sometimes a dozen a day, he honors Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he enthusiastically champions the idea that government can play a positive role in the lives of working people.

In short, Antonio Villaraigosa is a liberal. And, never mind that we live in an era in which pundits like to snicker about the "L-word," Villaraigosa is not apologizing for his beliefs.

"I'm not a guy who's always trying to score a point to move up in the polls," he said. "That's not who I am."

Villaraigosa grew up tough and forcefully anti-establishment. Tattooed and in trouble early, he fathered two children with two girlfriends while he was still so young that now, at 46, he's a grandfather. His father was absent while he was growing up. His grades were mediocre, and only the affirmative action policies of the time cleared him for admission to UCLA. (When he was honored there recently as the first UCLA alumnus to serve as Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa quipped: "Some people say I got in here through the back door. One thing is sure: I went out through the front door.")

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