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The quiet force

A frenetic new life awaits the mayor-elect at City Hall, but back home Corina Villaraigosa is ...

June 18, 2005|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

As her husband campaigned relentlessly to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, Corina Villaraigosa found herself surprisingly calm -- at first.

She had been through this before with Antonio -- a successful council race two years ago, a heartbreaking loss for mayor in 2001, a heady win in the state Assembly that launched his political career. Always poised and reserved, Corina, 47, knew the drill. Or at least she thought she did.

The morning after her husband won the election, panic set in.

"I woke up, and that's when it hit," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God!' "

The shy schoolteacher -- a sylph with huge brown eyes -- wanted to stay in the shadow of her husband's glare. She quickly realized, however, that she was in the spotlight as well.

"When I started thinking about the impact it was going to have on me, it was a little daunting," she said.

For years she has been her husband's calming force. She's attended to their children while working full time across town in Montebello. She filled their home in Mount Washington with colorful folk art and painted the walls a vibrant yellow. She's kept everything in order, even down to Villaraigosa's shirts (dozens of them perfectly pressed and hung, according to color, in a small upstairs closet).

She has provided the domestic foundation that allows her husband to endure the chaos that has become his outside life. Her 52-year-old husband, in turn, still awes her with the sweep of his accomplishments and the power of his personality.

"He's so bubbly, so lively, so happy," she said.

Corina is well schooled on how to keep the family together. But it is the public demands of her new job that have caught her by surprise.

Unlike presidential first ladies, who are seasoned by years of national attention and coached by large staffs, mayoral spouses are left to figure out their roles largely on their own. There are no guidebooks, no protocols and really no firm expectations.

Each must find her own style.

Ethel Bradley held teas and attended Dodger games with her girlfriends. In the afternoons, she puttered around her garden at the Getty House, the mayor's mansion in Windsor Square. Once asked by a Times reporter in 1992 about his wife's low profile, Tom Bradley responded: "Her feeling is she has given her husband to public service. That doesn't mean that she now has to give herself."

Nancy Daly, Richard Riordan's wife, relished her public post. As her husband vowed to fix the city, Daly sought to redecorate it (she raised money to renovate the Getty House and the mayoral office at City Hall).

Monica Hahn shunned almost all public events after her husband was elected four years ago. (She and James K. Hahn separated in 2003 after 20 years of marriage.)

"In New York, mayoral first ladies become great sport, especially on the gossip page, but in Los Angeles it's a different game," said UC San Diego political science professor Steve Erie, who recently wrote a book about Los Angeles politics. "Some would argue that there are not very high expectations of the city's mayors, let alone their spouses."

But this time it's different.

Within days of the May 17 election, Antonio Villaraigosa's face ended up on the cover of Newsweek as he made history by becoming the city's first Latino mayor in more than a century. In the weeks that followed, the office was deluged with requests for interviews from around the world.

People wanted to know more about Corina and exactly what she planned to accomplish as first lady.

Villaraigosa's staff struggled to figure out how to respond. One campaign spokesperson tried to argue that Corina was a private person (even though Villaraigosa featured her in election ads). Another handler, hoping to shield Corina from questions about her husband's previously reported infidelity and the couple's two-year separation, asked a reporter to give her time to get used to her new position. Nearly a month after the election, the staff finally relented and let Corina give interviews. (Questions about the Villaraigosas' past marital problems were strictly off-limits, however.)

With the July 1 mayoral inaugural quickly approaching, Corina is still, as one friend put it, trying to "get her sea legs."

"It's nerve-racking," says Corina. "I've decided just to enjoy it and make the best of it."

She stressed that her children, Natalia, 12, and Antonio Jr., 16, are her first priorities. She also said that she plans to keep her job as a bilingual coordinator in the Montebello Unified School District.

"I'm going to do as much as I can, but I want to spend as much time as possible with my own kids," she said.

Political science professor Erie compared Corina to Laura Bush, who made her husband promise early in his political career that she would never have to give a speech alone.

"Remember how Laura was shy and retiring, she didn't want the limelight?" Erie said. "But just look at her now."

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