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Villaraigosa Sets a Style: 'Hands-On'

Even before he takes office, the mayor-elect is busy in public and behind the scenes. A major question: Can he keep the focus on goals?

June 28, 2005|Michael Finnegan and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

His inauguration is still three days away, but for weeks Antonio Villaraigosa has appeared every bit the mayor of Los Angeles.

He brokered the settlement of a hotel labor dispute. He led classroom conversations to ease racial tension at a school beset by ethnic brawls. He handed out Little League trophies in Eagle Rock, went to church in South Los Angeles, waved to crowds from a red convertible in a Canoga Park parade.

On key campaign themes, he urged state lawmakers to give him control of the city's public schools and staked his claim to lead the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He pushed the city's harbor agency to pare spending and he sought the city attorney's legal advice on cutting noise at Van Nuys Airport.

By all accounts, the city councilman who trounced Mayor James K. Hahn in last month's election has signaled a decidedly active approach to governing Los Angeles.

"He's telling everybody that he's a hands-on guy, and he's willing to do this 24/7," said Steven P. Erie, a Los Angeles politics expert at UC San Diego.

But as Villaraigosa prepares for his formal swearing-in ceremony Friday on the south steps of City Hall, an open question is whether over the next four years he will stay focused on his major goals. Also unknown: Will his political fate be shaped by such unforeseeable events as natural disasters, riots, strikes, scandal or an economic slide?

"Anything like that can take an enormous amount of time and attention and can divert you, as a politician, from your campaign promises," said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. "It can also define you as a leader."

During his six-week transition, Villaraigosa has worked to frame his mayoralty around priorities he set in the campaign.

Most striking have been his call for a mayoral takeover of the school system and his decision to chair the MTA. Those moves reflect his pledge to remedy two of the city's most acute problems: the decline of its public schools and the clogged traffic that defines day-to-day life.

Villaraigosa's other central campaign vow was to expand the city police force. He has yet to release specific plans on public safety. But the morning after the election, he met with Police Chief William J. Bratton, and the event's timing carried symbolic weight.

The mayor-elect has also tended to his public image. While continuing to play down the historic import of becoming the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles, he nonetheless has exploited the media attention to raise his national profile.

Three days after his victory, he posed in a business suit on Venice Beach for a Newsweek cover shot amid a cluster of lights and reflectors wedged into the sand. "Latino Power," the cover blared. On ABC's "Nightline," he shared thoughts on race relations. He has been interviewed on CNN and National Public Radio.

He also gave speeches to Latino groups in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas, where he mugged for cameras in a cowboy hat.

Villaraigosa's embrace of the limelight has led to wide speculation about the reach of his political ambition. "I'm going to focus on the city of Los Angeles," he told a nurse who asked at a union meeting if he would run for governor next year.

Privately, Villaraigosa has worked long hours since the May 17 election to build his City Hall staff, choose several hundred commissioners and otherwise prepare to govern. He has interviewed more than a dozen people for senior jobs and personally appraised some of the nearly 5,000 applications for work in his administration.

At the city's emergency operations center, police and fire chiefs gave Villaraigosa an exhaustive briefing on plans to handle major earthquakes and other calamities. Villaraigosa also met with Michael Chertoff, the new Homeland Security secretary.

With a policy agenda that requires help from state and federal lawmakers, Villaraigosa has reached out to allies. He had lunch with the U.S. Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, at Patina restaurant in Disney Hall. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a longtime friend and fellow Democrat with shared roots in organized labor, went to dinner at Villaraigosa's home in Mount Washington.

At City Hall, Villaraigosa has set out to pay personal office visits to all his fellow council members, not just to the six who backed his campaign but also to the eight who did not, according to aides.

"It's interesting: We don't go to him; he comes to us," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who pulled his endorsement of Hahn and switched to Villaraigosa days before the election. "That's the way he reaches out to people. You would think he's on that pedestal, we'd have to go to him."

On Saturday, Villaraigosa showed up in San Pedro to watch the current mayor swear in his sister, Janice, for a second term as councilmember. On Monday, the mayor-to-be attended the Hollywood inauguration of Councilman Eric Garcetti, who backed Hahn in the election.

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