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Mayor's smooth ride has gotten bumpier

A park melee, a schools snub and other setbacks slow Villaraigosa's midterm momentum.

June 01, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa soared through his first year in office on a wave of public support that made him a daunting political force almost destined for higher office.

But a recent rough patch has raised questions about whether he has lost some of that early luster.

The courts snubbed Villaraigosa's plan to gain significant control over Los Angeles public schools. Chicago inched out L.A. for a chance to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

A police riot squad beat immigrant-rights marchers and journalists in MacArthur Park last month, prompting the mayor to cut short a highly promoted trip to Central America.

And last week, Villaraigosa lost an ugly public battle over bus fare increases, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials later spoke of delaying several projects because of budget woes, including the mayor's vaunted subway to the sea beneath Wilshire Boulevard.

Now, as Villaraigosa approaches the midpoint of his four-year term, political observers agree that he is scrambling to maintain his initial momentum and deliver tangible results on numerous promises, even as recent events have opened the door to rare public criticism from at least one prominent elected leader: county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

"It's not his first year any longer. It's bound to happen to anybody in a second year," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "But I think the saving grace for Antonio is that he's still riding extremely high with voters of the city."

Regalado and other political analysts say Villaraigosa is wounded but that he remains potent, and even feared in some quarters.

They point to recent political races in which three of his candidates were elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education, making the new majority sympathetic to his goals and appreciative of his support. The shift will be crucial in the coming months as Villaraigosa seeks control of at least a cluster of schools, allowing him to build on the core of his education plan that was rejected by the courts because it had not been put directly before voters.

Those who follow city politics also stress Villaraigosa's much-publicized endorsement this week of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who named the mayor one of four national chairmen of her 2008 presidential campaign.

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'An honest optimist'

The partnership with Clinton -- who called the mayor "an honest optimist and a practical visionary" -- instantly elevated his national stature and fanned speculation among Democratic faithful about his becoming California's next governor or landing a Cabinet post in a potential Clinton White House.

Villaraigosa and his senior aides acknowledge the recent disappointments but prefer to see them as minor bumps overshadowed by the mayor's accomplishments on education, public safety, mass transit, the environment and city budgeting.

They say, for example, that he deserves credit for balancing the city's books and dramatically reducing a $295-million structural deficit -- by more than $200 million -- amid declining revenues.

They also speak of his successful effort to win an increase in trash collection fees to hire 1,000 additional police officers, saying the city is well on its way to meeting the goal as the rate of violent crime -- including gang homicides -- drops.

They single out his efforts this year to tackle gang crime by devoting more money to suppression and prevention programs.

And they point to Villaraigosa's securing billions of dollars in state bond money for mass transit projects -- including carpool lanes on the 405 Freeway -- and an aggressive expansion of the Department of Water and Power's use of alternative energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"The real story here is that we're on track," Villaraigosa said Thursday as he signed his second city budget, which, like his first, won unanimous support from the City Council.

Villaraigosa and his senior deputies even claim victory on the education front. They argue that, despite successive legal setbacks to his plan to take control of the schools, the mayor has effectively won by elevating the discussion about reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District.

With his board majority in hand, Villaraigosa is working behind the scenes to secure many of the reforms he was denied by the courts.

His office is in preliminary talks with Green Dot Public Schools, a prominent charter school operator and a frequent foe of the district, to possibly oversee a high school and the middle and elementary schools that feed it, and to shape a broader reform agenda.

"We anticipate the mayor will have a significant role in low-performing schools as envisioned" in the school district takeover legislation, said Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg.

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Higher expectations

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