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He's gotten our attention

Now Villaraigosa will try to stir an electorate that has historically taken an apathetic view toward its leaders.

June 29, 2005|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Antonio Villaraigosa's historic victory as the first Latino mayor in modern Los Angeles did more than signal the beginning of a new era at City Hall. Overnight, as political blogger Joe Scott put it, Villaraigosa became the "numero uno star in Latino national politics."

Antonio fever is sure to reach a pitch Friday morning when the numero uno star is sworn in, but will Angelenos really care? This is a city, after all, that doesn't generally give a fig about its chief executive and proved it by staying home in droves during the election. (Turnout in the May 17 election was a paltry 33.9% of registered voters.) Does anyone think Villaraigosa can really make a difference in their lives?

He can't twitch his nose and make the perpetual rush hour on our freeways disappear. He can't turn the public schools around (though he is making noises about trying). He probably can't stop your job from being outsourced to India. "It doesn't really matter who's mayor," said urban expert Joel Kotkin, who lives in Valley Village. "It's almost that Villaraigosa is more exciting as an idea than as an individual."

But a mayor does have power. He can fix your potholes, tidy the parks, hire new cops and help determine how public transit works (or whether it does). Perhaps most important, he might restore your optimism about this city. Look what clamping down on the armies of intimidating squeegee men did for former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. This may be the most interesting aspect of the dawning Villaraigosa era: his ability to evoke in Angelenos a certain emotion, tied to the idea that we are on the brink of a historic new era, that the outgoing mayor couldn't have tapped in a million years.

"I've lived under a lot of mayors, most memorably that stinker [Sam] Yorty, who was very divisive," said poet and essayist Wanda Coleman, who recently moved to Lancaster, where the sounds of early morning trains evoke her South L.A. childhood. "When Watts exploded, Yorty said it wasn't even part of the city of Los Angeles! That is the kind of mentality that has ruled Los Angeles for so long." The initial euphoria over the election of the mayor who followed Yorty into office, Tom Bradley, soon waned, said Coleman, and she found him to be a disappointment. "Our first black mayor," she said, "and yet he seemed ineffectual."

When Coleman speaks of Villaraigosa, however, you can hear the hopefulness in her voice. "We have a new unifying principle here in this mayor," she said. "I think he could probably mean a new foundation, a new unity. I've got my fingers crossed for that."

Like Coleman, filmmaker Robert Greenwald, a Marina del Rey resident who has produced left-leaning documentaries about Fox News and the buildup to the war in Iraq, is feeling more optimistic about City Hall than he has in years. He was especially impressed by Villaraigosa's work with hotel owners and union leaders to avert a hotel lockout earlier this month.

"I don't think there's anybody powerful enough to fix the traffic," Greenwald said, "but the fact that Antonio has such energy and vision has already made a difference. And the fact that he stayed up all night and helped solve the hotel workers' strike -- there was a jaunt in people's steps the next day, an excitement that we've got somebody now who's a real leader and who cares and who's got 'the vision thing.' He represents a positive belief that things can be done to improve our city."

The idea that the new mayor is capable of inspiring and motivating Angelenos crops up frequently in conversations with people who are engaged in local civic and cultural life. Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., has worked closely with the new mayor on projects such as funding for the gardens at Walt Disney Concert Hall. "Villaraigosa has a remarkable vision for the potential unity of this city," said Borda. "He sees it on a grand scale and he sees the arts as a vehicle to achieve that. Mayor Hahn was a solid administrator. Villaraigosa is quite possibly a visionary."

A stone's throw from City Hall, in Boyle Heights, Michael Baca focuses on moral leadership when he considers the effect that Villaraigosa might have on the city. Baca is operations director of Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights, the gang intervention and job training program. "What Antonio is going to help us with that Hahn couldn't is this black/brown issue that's going on in the city," said Baca, referring to racial violence that has flared recently on high school campuses. "If anybody can bring that relationship together, it's Antonio." Some of the city's best-known black churches, said Baca, approached Homeboy Industries recently to work on ways to bring the communities together, to create some sort of "black/brown forum," said Baca. "I am sure Antonio had something to do with that."

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