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L.A.'s leading grown-up leaves Villaraigosa

As chief of staff, Robin Kramer has been the steadying hand behind the mayor and other city powerhouses, including Richard Riordan, Richard Alatorre and Eli Broad.

August 28, 2009|Jim Newton | Jim Newton is editor of the editorial pages of The Times.

Eleven years ago, Robin Kramer and I were part of a delegation that accompanied then-Mayor Richard Riordan on a trip through the Far East, she as his chief of staff, I as a reporter. One afternoon, we were stuck in a conference room in Beijing, surrounded by a cluster of scrambling mayoral aides and business people. They were frenetically preparing for a meeting, but nevertheless found the time to fret about a story of mine in that day's paper. In it, I recounted how the mayor had muffed the introduction of a Chinese official the night before. Across the room, I caught Kramer's eye. She arched one eyebrow, grinned and shrugged it off. She was the soul of steadiness in a frantic, sleep-deprived group.

For years, Kramer has been the levelest head in the wild politics of Los Angeles. She has served an honor roll of Los Angeles leaders, having been chief of staff not just to Riordan but also to former Councilman Richard Alatorre and the city's foremost philanthropic and cultural leader, Eli Broad. Most recently, she's brought her unflappability to the administration of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has tested her anew precisely because he's needed her so much. Kramer is Los Angeles' leading grown-up. On Thursday, she announced that she is leaving the mayor's side, and the city will be the poorer for it.

When Kramer accepted the job as Villaraigosa's chief aide, city insiders were palpably relieved. The mayor's reputation was as a passionate, enthusiastic leader, seen by his friends as peripatetic, by his critics as unfocused. The challenge that many foresaw for him was to shrug off distractions and tend to governance, to be not just an idea factory but a closer. Kramer was the solution. To Villaraigosa's energy, she added character and stability; if anyone could keep Villaraigosa on task, the theory went, it was Kramer. She was, moreover, drawn from a different pool than many Villaraigosa advisors. Where the mayor and many of his allies come from the labor movement, Kramer does not. With her departure, Villaraigosa is more firmly embedded than ever in that piece of L.A.'s politics.

To be sure, Kramer has not always succeeded, but that perhaps says more about Villaraigosa than it does about Kramer. She helped him assemble a top-flight group of managers and gave shape to his agenda, but he has a way of adjusting it as he goes. He said little during his campaign for mayor about schools, but ended up making that a centerpiece of his administration. He promised to plant a million trees and didn't. He had an affair that ruined his marriage. He backed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, only to see Barack Obama steal her thunder and his. He likes to muse about a "subway to the sea" in all its grandiosity, but traffic remains snarled without much prospect of relief.

The administration has scored some successes. It has continued to build the Police Department and been rewarded with falling crime. If it hasn't put a million trees in the ground, it's at least planted hundreds of thousands. It hasn't taken over L.A. schools, as he sought, but he's gained oversight over some and has helped to champion an important proposal to open up new and failing schools to outside operators. That measure was approved this week, just two days before Kramer announced her plans to leave.

It's awfully hard to begrudge Kramer this decision. After all, just writing the words "chief of staff to Alatorre, Riordan, Broad and Villaraigosa" is enough to wear a person out. Those are forceful men, and they did not always like being corralled by Kramer. But she's as tough as she is consistent -- Kramer is, she likes to remind anyone who imagines her to be soft, Hungarian. In every case, Kramer's boss was more effective because of her.

She's devoted decades to fashioning Los Angeles into a more humane and hospitable place. And though she hasn't always won, she's done better than most, and done so in the service of demanding -- and trying -- bosses. For the last four years, we've seen Villaraigosa under the watchful and steady eye of Kramer. Now we'll see what he's like without her. Buckle your seat belts.

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