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Meet the new boss

Villaraigosa is passing a test of power by trying to push through his school reform plan.

August 27, 2006|Raphael J. Sonenshein | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles."

MAYOR ANTONIO Villaraigosa's school reform plan certainly has its critics, including those who say he won't get enough authority. It shows signs of compromise -- he would, for instance, share the power to choose a superintendent with the elected school board and a new council of mayors. But although the bill giving the mayor much of the authority he covets to reform the L.A. Unified district stalled last week, few doubt that Villaraigosa will eventually have his way with the Legislature.

What's surprising is how relatively effortless his march through state, city and school district politics has seemed. His widely touted political skills have been indispensable, to be sure. But something deeper has facilitated his success -- California's changing political culture.

Los Angeles mayors haven't easily won greater authority. Mayors of such traditional big cities as New York, Boston and Chicago can draw on a tradition of party organizations, which the mayor often led, to gain more power. Voters in these cities expect the mayor to be the undisputed head of the government. Their city councils are relatively weak. Unlike in Los Angeles, these big-city mayors don't have to contend with the leaders of a bunch of surrounding small cities.

Los Angeles government, by contrast, was shaped by reformers who feared centralization of power and designed checks and balances -- a strong City Council, a commission system of governance -- to prevent it. They worried that a strong mayor would be a dictatorial boss. An L.A. mayor would have to do a lot of political work to augment his or her authority.

Fletcher Bowron served as mayor from 1938 to 1953, but only in 1951 did he narrowly win voter approval for a city administrative officer to help him draw up the budget. Sam Yorty twice attempted to strengthen his hand through charter reform -- and twice failed. Tom Bradley didn't seek added mayoral authority, but his coalition-building skills were so outstanding that he didn't have to. Richard Riordan wanted unilateral power to fire general managers of city departments but had to settle for a compromise giving the City Council a smaller voice in the matter.

Charter reform in 1999 did add power to the mayor's office, but in smaller increments than the mayor wanted. As passionate as he is about education, Riordan never tried to restructure L.A. Unified to give him a greater say in district policy. Instead, he successfully supported school board candidates who shared his reform ideas.

So, why has Villaraigosa been able to succeed where his predecessors even feared to tread?

The mayor's mastery of coalition-building politics certainly helps. Villaraigosa isolated the elected Board of Education and outgoing Supt. Roy Romer by picking off the teachers union, the City Council, which unanimously backed his school reform plan, and the mayors of other cities that send students to L.A. Unified. He brought in the well-regarded fix-up specialist Ray Cortines as his education advisor, a move that softened some of the board's resentment. His legal team has adjusted the plan to head off court challenges.

But more than political wizardry is at play here. Term limits have also played an important role in Villaraigosa's success too.

Before state (1990) and local (1993) term limits kicked in, Sacramento and Los Angeles were political worlds apart. When Bradley was mayor, there was an invisible but effective barrier between them. The Democratic leaders of the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh and then-state Sen. Mervyn Dymally, were political rivals of Bradley. With elected state and city officials serving long terms, there was little intermingling between these levels of government -- and also scant mutual understanding. Local politicians regarded their state counterparts as party hacks; while state pols thought local types were provincial yahoos.

Term limits have mixed things up. At first, state politicians didn't run well in city races, but in time they began to win. Meanwhile, City Council members moved up to the Assembly and Senate, and citywide elected officials began dreaming of statewide office. Today, a former Assembly speaker is mayor of Los Angeles and another former speaker, Herb Wesson, sits on the City Council. Several former council members are in the Legislature. Former legislators are talking about potholes and ex-council members are taking on state issues.

A trip to Sacramento for Villaraigosa is a reunion with old political buddies. He can put together deals as if he were still speaker. Some legislators would like his endorsement should they seek office in L.A. after being termed out. This state-city political overlap gives Villaraigosa a major advantage in his struggle with the school board.

In addition, Villaraigosa's popularity is magnified by his position on the cutting edge of a new, growing and somewhat unpredictable Latino population.

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