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Averting the `sophomore jinx'

July 02, 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."

A GREAT FIRST year in office is a wonderful thing. Any leader would want one. But it's important to remember just how quickly the good times can disappear.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, became a political star his first year as governor of California, defying expectations that his inexperience would make him a patsy of Sacramento's wily veterans. But he stumbled badly shortly thereafter.

Now consider Antonio Villaraigosa. He too had an outstanding first year as mayor of Los Angeles, piling up a remarkable array of successes. But as he enters his second year amid the controversy over his compromise plan to carve out a role in running the city's schools, Villaraigosa might see a cautionary tale in the governor's political fall.

Villaraigosa's seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm for the job have placed a powerful personal stamp on the office. As the city's first Latino mayor in 130 years, he landed on Newsweek's cover the week after his election and is seen by many as the symbol of Latinos' increasing importance in politics.

He also is the first L.A. mayor to speak openly and warmly of the city's often-hidden, largely immigrant working class -- the people who clear restaurant tables, perform much of the hard labor and baby-sit the kids of the middle class. He believes that good schools are essential to the upward mobility of these workers and their children.

The mayor also has forged close ties with the powerful City Council during his first year in office. Easy passage of his first budget and the council's unanimous vote for his trash-collection fee hike to pay for more cops demonstrated his clout with the council. He also retains a strong base in the Legislature, where he was Assembly speaker.

Villaraigosa's signature effort, however, has been a high-risk, high-reward effort to gain greater mayoral control over the L.A. Unified School District. During the mayoral campaign, education was the No. 1 issue for many voters, and Villaraigosa promised to improve the performance of the city's low-achieving schools by doing what the mayors of Chicago and New York City did -- take them over. For most of the year, this ambition put him at loggerheads with the United Teachers Los Angeles, one of the few unions to endorse him for mayor.

The battle over who should run the city's schools has further boosted Villaraigosa's political stature. It gives him the opportunity to play a role much coveted in the L.A. political culture -- that of reformer. It allows him to cross party lines and show independence from those who back him politically. (Both Schwarzenegger and former Mayor Richard Riordan support his quest for a greater say in school affairs.) And the fight enabled him to again showcase his consensus-building skills when the mayor, state legislators and union leaders recently agreed to a compromise takeover plan in the Legislature. But his quest for school reform could still upset his string of victories.

Changing the way institutions are governed is a tough slog, and there are many highly effective opponents along the way. Unlike the mayors of New York City and Chicago, Villaraigosa must deal with nearby mayors whose smaller cities also feed L.A. district schools. When united, they can frustrate the big city's ambitions, as happened with proposals to expand LAX.

Villaraigosa is a determined advocate who can make a compelling case for district reform. But the specifics can make or break the case. Although the most recent agreement has won considerable support, it also has raised questions about whether the plan gives power to too many cooks, thereby diluting the overall accountability that Villaraigosa has convincingly contended is crucial to fixing the schools.

How Schwarzenegger handled his initial foray into structural reform stands as the cautionary tale. The new governor quickly surmounted the bitter partisanship of the 2003 recall election and reached out to Democratic leaders in the Legislature. He became the unlikely pal of Democrat John Burton, the arch-liberal veteran who led the state Senate. Deftly using his celebrity, Schwarzenegger bargained like an old pro, reaching agreements on such important issues as a bond measure to pay California's bills. His bipartisanship earned him plaudits as a governor with the potential to rival Earl Warren and Pat Brown in achievements.

But although Schwarzenegger portrayed himself as a reformer who would "blow up the boxes" of state government, he was unable to capitalize on his early successes. As his second year began, it became clear that the governor didn't know how to carry out complicated reforms that antagonized strong political interests. He wasted time backing a huge, scattershot study of state government and then abandoned most of its recommendations.

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