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In the 1st 100 days, a million photo ops

At rallies, premieres, disasters and anywhere else, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is ever in some camera's eye.

October 07, 2005|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

If James K. Hahn was Los Angeles' Invisible Man, Antonio Villaraigosa seems to be its media Zelig -- everywhere, in every frame. Unlike Zelig, though, he's been front and center at every turn over the last 100 days.

He has:

* Posed on Venice beach for a Newsweek cover.

* Hung out with Geena Davis on the red carpet at the premiere of "Commander in Chief."

* Appeared with Andy Garcia at the nomination news conference for the Latin Grammys.

* Posed for Time magazine (looking very solemn at City Hall).

* Traveled to Washington, D.C. (twice), to meet with lawmakers on homeland security issues. Received a rock star's reception.

* Been a fixture at fairs and rallies, and says he's signed on to be the first "non-celebrity" grand marshal of the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

* Demonstrated a love for heavy equipment, operating a paving machine on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood and drawing at least a half-dozen television cameras to the dedication of a giant tow truck.

* Ridden (on an LAPD horse named Tom) with neighborhood leaders in Chatsworth.

* Sailed with a crew of teenagers and their grandparents on Los Angeles' official tall ship in the city's port.

* Ridden the Red Line after the London subway bombings.

* Taken the Gold Line to Union Station for a news conference. And he sang happy birthday to a delighted 10-year-old he met on the train.

* Appeared as himself on ABC's "George Lopez" show (it airs next Wednesday).

* Become an opening-night fixture, showing up for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Center Theatre Group's "Dead End" (he had to leave early to appear on his regular segment on KCAL Channel 9).

* Met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during a two-day trip to Sacramento. He brushed aside suggestions at a news conference later that he might run for governor next year.

In short: Villaraigosa seems well on his way to becoming the most photographed, televised and interviewed chief executive in city history.

It may be the right approach at the right time, said Brown University political science professor Darrell West, author of the book "Celebrity Politics."

"We're living in a media era," Brown said. "Politicians who are able to turn themselves into celebrities are able to attract even greater publicity.

"That helps them raise money, which helps them become more efficient politicians. Everything is intertwined: Media, money and celebrityhood."

When he went on jury duty, it was front-page news. When JetBlue Flight 292 made an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport two weeks ago, Villaraigosa was on the scene, taking reporters' questions and serving as unofficial spokesman for the plane's media-shy pilot. And, as the Topanga brush fire gained speed last week, he rushed to the scene, becoming the first public official to go on air assuring residents that the city would fight to save their homes. Since taking office, he has logged more than 250 public appearances (his staff has lost count). His picture has appeared in the Los Angeles Times 35 times (twice as much as his predecessor during his first 100 days).

And it's not all glitz and glad-handing; he's thrown himself into serious matters with equal speed. He comforted the mother of a toddler killed by police in a gunfight, and he urged calm after police allegedly beat Nation of Islam Leader Tony Muhammad.

He called for a meeting at Jefferson High School to defuse racial tension among students, and he ordered the city to open its emergency operations center after the London transit bombings.

The last time there was this much visibility by a mayor in Los Angeles, it was 1973 and Tom Bradley was new in office. "L.A. has been waiting a long time for an activist mayor," said veteran political consultant Rick Taylor. Even Hahn has noticed all the attention his former nemesis is getting. (He recently lamented to Los Angeles Daily News columnist Rick Orlov, dean of the City Hall press corps, that no one cared when he went on jury duty.)

It takes two to be a media darling, of course. Broadcast reporters say that a telegenic and talkative guest like Villaraigosa "cameras well."

"It's like he gets energy from being on television," said Linda Breakstone, political reporter for CBS 2 News. "I've seen him walk into a room and see TV cameras and light up.... Now, one can say it's a good quality not to be afraid of the cameras. It's a way to connect with voters."

But, she said: "It can cut both ways.

"Is he constantly out there at the expense of doing his job? We don't know. We have to give him a chance to be mayor for a while."

Of course, in L.A. there are celebrities and celebrities. The mayor has yet to make much of an impression on the paparazzi.

Ask celebrity photographer Steven Lenahan how much a photo of Villaraigosa goes for and he'll ask, "Antonio Villa-ra-who?"

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