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The state of L.A.

Villaraigosa grapples with the city that elected him and the city he governs.

April 16, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's address Monday evening was his third State of the City report since he took office -- and the first speech of his 2009 reelection campaign.

The heart of Villaraigosa's address was the outline of a smart new approach to the gang problem, one that has the potential to bring focus and, equally important, accountability to the city's treatment of this critical public safety issue. There's a lot to admire about that section of the mayor's speech, which is all the more impressive because it builds on insights generated elsewhere in city government -- a comprehensive report to the City Council by civil rights attorney Connie Rice and her associates, and a proposal by Controller Laura Chick that all civic gang programs be centralized in the mayor's office.

Villaraigosa knows good ideas when he sees them, but he was in a position to capitalize on their recommendations because he'd had the foresight to hire a deputy mayor, Jeff Carr, to head his Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. Carr already has earned high marks from many of the city's most effective anti-gang workers, and it's safe to say that Carr's influence was evident in the mayor's praise for programs like Baldwin Village's extended-hours recreation center. Similarly, Villaraigosa's decision to increase the city's Gang Reduction Zones from eight to 12 expands a concept -- putting resources, cops and programs where gang activity is the heaviest -- that has shown long-term results in other cities.

Most important, the mayor demonstrated his commitment to the gang issue by increasing funding for anti-gang initiatives from $19 million to $24 million. That may not sound like a lot, but in a year of budgetary crisis and proposed fee hikes on electricity and trash collection, it's the equivalent of giving a quart of political blood.

Still, the centrality of the gang problem in Villaraigosa's State of the City address points to both the promise and paradox of his mayoral administration and to the ambiguous record he'll carry into the next campaign.

It's no accident that the mayor delivered his speech at the Police Department's Parker Center headquarters. Improved public safety is the Villaraigosa administration's big success. "When you don't have safe streets, everything falls apart," he said Monday. "Public safety is the foundation of everything we are trying to build in the city of Los Angeles."

That's true, but the cornerstones of that foundation were laid by Villaraigosa's predecessor, Jimmy Hahn. He made sure the city had the wherewithal to tackle the big public safety questions when he beat back the San Fernando Valley secession effort. He also replaced Police Chief Bernard C. Parks with the reform-minded Bill Bratton. Hahn took huge political hits for both those good decisions; L.A. was better off, but he was out of office.

Villaraigosa deserves full marks for his support of Bratton. Even this bare-bones budget, which anticipates the loss of 767 city jobs, includes funds for 1,000 new police officers and additional overtime for the existing force. In fact, to a certain extent, this new focus on gangs is a product of the improvements in public safety that Bratton and Villaraigosa have delivered. Recent gang outrages have moved to the top of the public safety agenda because other threats to personal well-being -- crimes against people and property -- have markedly diminished over the last few years. As other successes have been achieved, this most intractable of public safety issues, one that will not yield to policing alone, finally may get the attention it deserves. That is a notable achievement.

Beyond public safety, it's possible to read the Villaraigosa record in a couple of ways -- as a string of unfulfilled promises or as an agenda of unprecedented ambition. Los Angeles is arguably more difficult to govern than any other major American city. Its mayor is elected by one city to govern another. The "city" that elects a chief executive is far older, more affluent and whiter than the real thing. The city that elects a mayor has interests; the city that the mayor governs has needs, and in that disjunction much of our civic discontent simmers.

When he came to office, Villaraigosa sought to bridge that gap by articulating an expansive activist vision, one that would take on the overarching civic issues of school reform, traffic gridlock, public safety and economic development. It would improve the quality of life for the city that elects, and increase the level of opportunity for the city that's governed.

While he has results to show in public safety, the mayor's address this week demonstrated that his initiatives in those other areas are, at best, works in progress. His major transit initiatives still are looking for funding, and his much-reduced schools program doesn't begin until July. One of the things a Villaraigosa reelection campaign will have to do is to convince the city that elects that the lack of demonstrable progress on schools and transportation simply reflects the complexity of the issues the mayor was willing to engage.


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