When it comes to governing Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa often sounds like a mayor of two minds.
He told workers staging a fast for higher wages at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport last week that a prosperous city must help lift its poor out of poverty.
Yet even as he voiced solidarity, saying he stood behind a new law that requires LAX-area hotels to hike wages, he reassured anxious business leaders that the pay increase would not be expanded citywide.
Villaraigosa's contrasting efforts underscore what is arguably his most daunting political challenge: balancing his liberal convictions with his broader responsibility for running a city that is complex and unwieldy.
"An effective chief executive of a major city like Los Angeles has to balance all of the stakeholders," the mayor said in an interview.
Some of that is plainly calculating: It is one thing to be elected as a progressive in liberal Los Angeles; it is another to advance up the California political ladder clinging to a narrow base dominated by labor unions and other interests dear to Democrats. And Villaraigosa, his protestations to the contrary, is eyeing the governorship as a possible career move.
Still, whether motivated by the desire for higher office or a yearning to govern effectively, Villaraigosa has assembled a more pragmatic agenda than some had predicted for a politician who cut his professional teeth in the labor movement.
In the nearly 18 months since taking office, the self-proclaimed "proud progressive" has drawn a template increasingly in tune with the nuances of the city he governs. Villaraigosa the mayor sounds more moderate and ideologically centrist than Villaraigosa the candidate.
He has invested millions of city dollars in affordable housing for the poor, for example, even as he has struck a fiscally conservative tone at City Hall by ordering department managers to cut their budgets in the face of a municipal shortfall.
He has called for expanding operations at the Port of Los Angeles to keep it competitive globally even as he has pushed aggressively to reduce its pollution.
He obtained some control over Los Angeles public schools despite early opposition from his biggest supporter, the teachers union, and defied a city union that briefly held a strike last summer over a new contract that it viewed as inadequate.
The mayor also sympathized with mostly Latino protesters who rallied earlier this year on the streets outside City Hall against federal legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, but then told participating students to return to class.
And he has gone from union mouthpiece to mediator in a few significant cases, helping to settle a threatened hotel workers strike and lockout before he took office and later sealing a deal between downtown Los Angeles' largest commercial property owner and security guards who wanted to unionize.
"There's no question that the role of chief executive of this city has changed me," Villaraigosa said. "I was probably more doctrinaire before this. I'm much more practical and commonsensical. Things have to pass the smell test."
Analysts who study Los Angeles say Villaraigosa's legacy will ultimately hinge on his ability to navigate the city's fractured interest groups, no small feat for a chief executive who next year faces contract negotiations with several unions and a budget shortfall that could reach several hundred-million dollars.
Villaraigosa, the analysts say, must demonstrate to supporters and voters alike that he is not beholden to unions or disposed to liberal dogma at the expense of the city's good.
"L.A. mayors are supposed to have a reformist vision, [but] just paying attention to your own ideological base doesn't necessarily allow you to get there," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor who writes frequently about Los Angeles politics. "You're not the head of an insurgency. You're the mayor of a city."
Villaraigosa's ascension coincides with an invigorated labor movement, whose leaders are among his closest and most trusted advisors. His power has been amplified by growing Latino political muscle in Los Angeles and Sacramento, as a new generation of leaders moves into local and state government.
At the center of this changing landscape in Los Angeles is the battle over the new city law that requires 13 hotels near LAX to pay their workers a "living wage" of $9.39 to $10.64 per hour, surpassing the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour that some workers now earn.
The Los Angeles City Council voted overwhelmingly last month to impose the measure, which previously applied only to businesses holding contracts with the city.
Villaraigosa signed the law, handing a major victory to union groups and a defeat to the hotels and their business allies, some of whom vow to kill the measure through a citywide referendum as soon as next May.