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A New Power Couple

June 27, 2005

Los Angeles with a weak mayor? Not much influence in Sacramento or Washington? It hasn't always been that way, and shouldn't be under Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa.

Not many people will recall this, but the late Tom Bradley marched off to Washington in 1973, his first year as mayor, pursuing the then-novel idea of capturing federal highway funds for urban mass transit. With the backing of business and labor, he finally succeeded, and thus was built L.A.'s first subway. Bradley assembled similar forces to capture the 1984 Olympics.

Here's what this editorial page said on June 22, 1973: "There appears to be a pretty good correlation between efforts put out by big-city mayors ... and the amount of federal help forthcoming. With Los Angeles, up to now, that effort has been minimal. Bradley has decided on a more active approach and ... he ought to keep trying, because that is one of the things this city's mayor should be doing." Only the name in that editorial needs to change.

Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, could stand united in Washington to wrest loose more federal funds for Medi-Cal, jails, hospitals and the state's crumbled roadways. Villaraigosa, who now tops the A-list of Latino politicians, and Schwarzenegger, who needs to show he can cooperate with someone, have powerful potential to do more as a couple than either could do individually.

Villaraigosa's six years in the Assembly from 1995 to 2001 give him a ready-made set of Sacramento allies (as well as a few enemies). He won't need a guide in the Capitol's office maze. He also has a knack for ending seemingly intractable fights (for instance the 2003 MTA strike and, just a few weeks ago, an imminent L.A. hotel strike and lockout). It's not impossible that he could help quell the chaos and hostility plaguing Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders.

That's important, because the city of Los Angeles alone accounts for more than 10% of the state's population. Add in the county and it's one-third. The infighting and lack of imagination in Sacramento are a constant source of harm to the city, in that elected officials are battling each other instead of solving the state's budget problems or generating influence in Washington.

Villaraigosa should be able to count on assistance in Sacramento from a longtime ally, City Councilman Martin Ludlow, who is expected to win election in July to succeed the late Miguel Contreras as head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. How much power does the federation have in Sacramento? Ask Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland). The backing of Contreras was key to his winning the post.

There's little question that L.A.'s new mayor wants to be, and will be, a presence on a larger stage. Schwarzenegger should be setting up a reception in the cigar tent, hoping that Villaraigosa will combine forces with him for the good of the state and its chief city.

What Los Angeles will be waiting for, however, is the bacon that Villaraigosa needs to bring home. The new mayor has to keep his eye on where he is, not where he wants to be next.

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