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Chamber Turns From Foe to Friend of Villaraigosa

September 22, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

Burying the hatchet from last year's election, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greeted a group of Los Angeles business leaders at City Hall on Thursday, acknowledging that many of them had questioned his suitability for mayor but expressing appreciation that they have supported his major initiatives in his first year.

"I would say there is no single entity that has been more supportive of this administration than the chamber," Villaraigosa told a standing-room-only audience at a forum sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and held in the city's elegant council chambers.

Specifically, Villaraigosa thanked the chamber for supporting his effort to take partial control of Los Angeles schools and to raise trash fees in order to underwrite an expansion of the city's police force.

Villaraigosa said he was particularly grateful for the chamber's support of his school bill, which was fought out in the final days of this summer's legislative session and which he won with few votes to spare. "There were a lot of naysayers," he said, "but the chamber was

The mayor was greeted cautiously at first -- he arrived late, and some chamber officials expectantly eyed the door as council President Eric Garcetti spoke. But once he arrived, Villaraigosa was welcomed by Garcetti and warmly applauded by the business leaders, who had gathered for a program known as "Access L.A. City Hall."

In 2005, the chamber endorsed incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn in his bid for reelection against then-Councilman Villaraigosa. Hahn, the chamber president said in announcing the group's endorsement, had "been an effective leader for the city of Los Angeles."

Although both Hahn and Villaraigosa are Democrats, Hahn ran as the more conservative of the two, making him a natural recipient of support from the chamber, which historically has leaned toward candidates and proposals intended to bolster the city's business community. Some chamber officials also were wary of Villaraigosa's background as a labor organizer.

Moreover, the chamber's immediate past president at the time, lawyer George Kieffer, was a leading Hahn supporter. Many observers attributed the endorsement at least partially to his influence.

Villaraigosa's victory left some on both sides of the race nervous. For at least some chamber members, that wariness persisted even after the election, as Villaraigosa seemed more intent on school reform, environmental protection, public safety and transportation than on job creation, the chamber's principal issue. Villaraigosa added to the skepticism among some chamber members when he skipped last year's chamber event at City Hall, instead sending his chief of staff.

On Thursday, the mayor directly addressed the uneasiness that some chamber members had expressed toward him during the election.

"When I ran," Villaraigosa said, some members saw him as someone who "came out of the teachers' union, [a] labor organizer."

Putting himself in the shoes of a chamber official, Villaraigosa said he imagined the reaction to his candidacy: "Jesus, what's going to happen with business with this guy?"

As audience members laughed, the mayor continued: "I think I've allayed concerns."

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, agreed later that the business leaders and mayor have "forged a good working relationship." Toebben is among the local leaders who will travel with Villaraigosa to Asia next month, the mayor's first extended trip abroad since taking office.

Toebben acknowledged that chamber leaders continue to press Villaraigosa to make job creation a central plank of his administration. But he said they are optimistic that the mayor is listening to them, especially since they presented him with figures showing that over a 15-year period, Los Angeles has added 1 million people and lost 50,000 jobs.

"Those numbers really got the attention of the mayor," Toebben said.

Whatever standoffishness existed at the beginning of Villaraigosa's speech, it appeared to have subsided by the end. As he concluded his remarks, the hundreds of people in attendance jumped to their feet and gave him a sustained standing ovation.

"Did you see that ovation?" he boasted afterward, beaming in a hall outside the council chambers. "There are no hard feelings."

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