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PROFILE: ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA

Intensity Fuels Consensus Builder's Rapid Rise

His rise from a grim Eastside childhood has been marked by unflagging energy. Along the way, he has overcome setbacks caused by risk-taking and an eagerness to please.

March 16, 2001|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As speaker, Villaraigosa threw himself into a typically frenetic round of bill-writing and deal-making, much of it cleverly calculated, according to some observers--to make a strong impression on Los Angeles voters in 2001.

In general, the consensus among Sacramento pundits was that Villaraigosa's two-year speakership was a model for the post term-limits era, his authority based in large measure on his willingness to reach out to the minority party.

"He understands that, while his philosophy may be more liberal than other people, the primary role of government is to solve problems," said state. Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), then Republican leader in the Assembly. "I can't say enough good things about him."

In 1998, Villaraigosa pushed through a $9-billion school bond measure with an elegantly crafted compromise: fiscally conservative Republicans got a cap on certain fees paid by developers; liberal Democrats were won over when a large share of the money was earmarked for the renovation of urban schools.

At the same time, Villaraigosa took risks that surprised some observers. He put the full weight of his speakership behind a bill outlawing discrimination against gay high school students in 1998, but suffered an embarrassing defeat when moderates in his own party wouldn't vote for it.

And he was roundly criticized for losing a safe Democratic seat in Oakland to the Green Party; Villaraigosa decided not to bankroll the campaign of the Democratic candidate, a former Oakland mayor.

By 1999, it was obvious that Villaraigosa was running for mayor. Still, he managed to get one more big project to the governor's desk: a $2-billion park bond issue, the biggest ever enacted by the Legislature. The initiative earmarked a large share for urban parks, including at least $90 million for "greening" the Los Angeles River.

Two years later, leaders of the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter would cite the parks measure as one of the central reasons they endorsed Villaraigosa for mayor.

The candidate is running his campaign the same way he's conducted his life--with manic intensity, beginning his days before dawn by exercising up and down the hills of his Mount Washington neighborhood. In debates he sometimes stumbles over his words because he's in such a hurry to list his accomplishments, as though the contest itself rests on who talks the most.

The same man who networked his high school has built a broad coalition behind his mayoral bid, racking up a fistful of endorsements from the county's largest labor, environmental, gay and women's groups.

True to form, at the same time he suffered his worst setback: the revelation that five years ago he wrote to the White House on behalf of convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, calling Vignali's sentence unjust. Villaraigosa says he didn't bother to find out more about the charges against Vignali before drafting the letter, a stunning mistake, even for a political novice.

He acted at the behest of Vignali's father, who "had been a friend," Villaraigosa said in an interview. "He spoke to me as a father. He said, 'My son is innocent.' . . . I went with my heart instead of my head."

Antonio Villaraigosa is surrounded by young baseball players at the unveiling of the first Little League park with lights in South-Central Los Angeles. A product of a single-parent Eastside home, he more often than not takes the side of the underdog.

About This Series.

The Times today presents the fifth of six profiles of the major candidates for mayor. The articles will appear in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Antonio Villaraigosa

* Born: Jan. 23, 1953, in Los Angeles.

* Education: UCLA, bachelor's degree in history, 1977; People's College of Law, Los Angeles, law doctorate, 1985.

* Personal: Married to Corina. Four children, including two from previous relationships: Marisela, 25, Prisila, 22, Antonio Jr., 11, and Natalia Fe, 7. Recently became a grandfather.

* Party: Democratic

* Career: California Assembly speaker, 1998-2000; Assembly member, 1994-2000; past president of Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; organizer, United Teachers-Los Angeles.

* Strategy: Villaraigosa is running in large measure on his record in Sacramento, where he developed a reputation as a consensus builder who successfully shepherded bills on parks, schools and public health through the Assembly. A liberal, he can count on strong backing from labor and environmental and women's groups.

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