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A vote for Mayor (not Gov.) Villaraigosa

Los Angeles' mayor should promise that he'll pass on Sacramento and stick with L.A. for the next four years.

February 27, 2009|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper is a political journalist and director of Annenberg Digital News at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

When Antonio Villaraigosa gets reelected as mayor next week, as is almost certain, there will be no repeat of the joyous and spontaneous street celebration that rocked downtown Los Angeles in 2005 when he defeated the listless Jimmy Hahn. The electrifying spirit that crackled through the crowd of thousands that rallied that night has fizzled into much more of a collective ho-hum. The most we're going to get next Tuesday night is thousands of Angelenos hearing of the inevitable victory of the mayor and, perhaps, pausing a moment to shrug their shoulders.

Too much public scandal, too much coziness with City Hall insiders, too much business-as-usual has all but extinguished the civic fire set ablaze by the highly charismatic, young Latino mayor who could seem as if he were popping up 10 different places at once.

The mayor now has a second chance to reignite that enthusiasm. And I'm not embarrassed to be counted among those who hope he succeeds. I recognize his faults and failures. I just as easily confess to still liking and even admiring him. Moreover, I even retain some of that newfangled Hope in him.

But there's one condition I'm attaching to my frayed loyalty. Immediately on claiming his election-night victory, I want Antonio -- as he's called by anyone no more distant from him than six degrees -- to unequivocally declare he will absolutely, positively not run for governor next year.

The national economic catastrophe, which is severely walloping our hometown, demands consistent and bold leadership from a mayor willing to stick with the city for the entire four years.

At last week's U.S. Conference of Mayors, our mayor was among the loudest voices arguing that economic recovery has to be driven from the bottom up, from the level of our densest and most hard-hit urban centers, not from either the rural hinterlands or from remote state capitals. "What I have been saying to the White House is that they need to look at urban areas," Villaraigosa told reporters. "You can build roads that connect the geese to the ducks, but that doesn't do anything to get goods to the public."

Exactly. Of the nearly $800 billion contained in President Obama's federal recovery program, Los Angeles stands to rake in almost $7 billion. Having that kind of dough to spread around is the dictionary definition of turning disaster into opportunity. Are you following the ball, Antonio?

The mayor's first term was a mixed bag, even if you put aside his personal contretemps. He's laid some groundwork for an eventual crosstown rail system, but it's still a long way from certain it will be built. He's worked effectively with LAPD Chief Bill Bratton to modernize and expand the force, but there are still plenty of crime problems, including gang warfare, that need attention. He flubbed a bid to take over the city's public schools, but then gave his blessing to a successful behind-the-scenes move to oust the lackluster David Brewer as superintendent. And he has done some work, though not all he promised, to improve the handful of schools he now controls.

At last count, one out of five L.A. County residents receive some form of public assistance, a number sure to rise as the economy sputters. Sometime this year, city levels of unemployment will hit double-digits. The demand for affordable public housing will mount.

On all these fronts we need a strong, energetic and fully engaged mayor. These are challenges I know Antonio can meet. If he so chooses.

His other option is to abandon ship early and make a dive for the governor's mansion. And a dive it just might be. Beating Jerry Brown and/or DiFi is far from a certainty -- to be diplomatic.

And anyway, what would the effective policy difference be in having Villaraigosa as governor rather than either of his two likely Democratic rivals? Basically, none.

Worse, with Villaraigosa leaving office early, we'd likely be stuck for the rest of his term with one of his decidedly less appealing acolytes, such as Jack Weiss or Wendy Greuel.

Holding the title of governor of the Golden State obviously confers more personal prestige than reigning as Chief Angeleno. The former is about personal glory and tussling for four years with a brain-dead Legislature. The second is about saving America's second-biggest city and, in doing so, not exactly failing to rack up a nice little bundle of political glory points.

I'm voting for Antonio on Tuesday, and hoping, against all odds, that he'll stick with us throughout these coming four difficult years. That's what hope's all about, isn't it? Hoping that your elected officials will put their constituencies ahead of their personal vanities and ambitions.

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