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California's dynamic duo

July 30, 2006

NOTHING WAS MORE CLEAR after the election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a year ago that he and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would become the two poles of California politics. Villaraigosa was the former union activist who grew up on the Eastside, the face of the emergent Latino Los Angeles, the Democrat of the future. Schwarzenegger was the European-born Hollywood action hero, the can-do Republican with the glamorous Kennedy-clan wife. They, and their egos, would wage an epic battle for the soul and future of California.

Nothing was more clear. And nothing was more clearly wrong. Whether they are allies of convenience or conviction, the two Californians with the household (but tongue-twisting) names are the state's dynamic duo, joining in common cause for political victories that are not by nature partisan. Villaraigosa is onboard with the governor's infrastructure bonds, and Schwarzenegger backs the mayor's school governance plan. Each sings the other's praises. Each is savvy enough to see that the other poses no inherent political threat, regardless of party difference.

Much has been made of Villaraigosa's not-so-secret gubernatorial ambitions, and of his consequent preference for a second (and final) term for Schwarzenegger rather than a first (of possibly two) for Democratic challenger Phil Angelides. The mayor, in fact, has let it be known that he will eventually do his duty and endorse the Democrat over Schwarzenegger. But there's no apparent rush.

It turns out that the mayor and the governor have more in common than a partisan analysis would suggest. Both, after all, are political moderates. Villaraigosa naturally leans more toward his labor roots and the multimillionaire Schwarzenegger toward a business approach. But they're sufficiently pragmatic and free of ideological dogma that they recognize the value of dialogue. And they both love dialogue -- the shoulder-brushing, backslapping give and take of the backroom negotiation (though Arnold likes the Capitol cigar tent and Antonio prefers his green tea).

They're also both somewhat mutable in their policy positions. Schwarzenegger was the darling of right-wing radio talk jocks. He cheered on the Minutemen, volunteers who scrambled to "secure the border" from illegal Mexican migrants. But that was back in the days when he was calling Democrats in the Legislature "girlie men." That was before he got his hindquarters kicked by the California Teachers Assn. and other labor opponents of his slate of ballot measures last November.

Now he's telling La Opinion that he was wrong to back Proposition 187, which would have denied public services to illegal immigrants, and he's facing down President Bush over troops on the border. And he sees in Villaraigosa's labor-backed schools bill an opportunity to join with the teachers union in a tactical embrace. At least until election day. Villaraigosa, meanwhile, rarely strays from his stated policy goals but is comfortable modifying timelines, or redefining victory, as conditions demand.

Both men, in the end, know power, and both know that little is possible for those in their line of work without it. Does their alliance represent the victory of politics over policy, or the other way around? The answer, as a good politician might say, is yes.

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