You got to love Antonio; he would have it no other way.
The bane of his life back when he was first running for mayor in 2005, even well after he got elected, was the LA Times and others incessantly calling him “the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in modern times.”
He often brought the subject up with me because at the Daily News we refused to belittle him as if he were some kind of token of affirmative action, a racial-ethnic category to be checked off so everybody was put in their proper box, the cohort that chained them to their genetic and demographic code.
So you had to laugh at the Times’ farewell to Antonio on Saturday where he is shown poignantly hugging chief of staff Gaye Williams in his empty City Hall suite of offices with a photo caption that says “he is proud that his status as ‘the Latino mayor’ is no longer the main focus of conversation about him.”
That phrase also serves to set up the first quote, the money quote, in the Times’ coverage: “Almost nobody in this town describes me as the Latin mayor. I love that.”
Some people never did. They chose to see something better in the punk from City Terrace who pulled himself up by his bootstraps with the seductive charm of his personality and inspired hope in the city, hope that we somehow could dream together and find the lost soul of this godless city, hope that he captured in his first inaugural address:
We come here to transcend our differences, to meet our collective challenges, and to define our mutual dreams, to take a stock of who we are and what we stand for, to remember where we came from, and to decide where we need to go.
Los Angeles is not only the one city that best embodies bold dreams. It is the destination of people’s imaginations, all around the world, whether or not they ever set foot here.
Fellow Angelenos, I’m asking you to dream with me, because our city not only represents America’s greatest hope. We also face many of its most daunting challenges.
Seen from the Hollywood Hills at night, L.A. spreads out like a field of diamonds. And it truly is. But we also know that this shimmering vision obscures a darker truth. We know that there’s a whole world of frustration lurking in the shadows between the lights, where too many parents fear for their children’s safety, where too many people are denied the opportunity to fully develop their God-given talents, and where too many families are swimming against the tide of a declining quality of life.
For so many who matter in L.A., the rhetoric in his speech about “thinking big” like the Chandlers and their pals and the big shots had for a 150 years were the words that resonated and turned out to be the words he meant.
But for me, the words the meant something to me were about dreams, hopes and ideals that could lead to a better city, a better world.
With a guy like Antonio, we latch onto the part we hope is real so what I took seriously was what I felt reflected the man I had come to know over the years, a flawed man like all of us, but one who understood what was wrong and what needed to be done to fix it.
The problems were big: There was a failure of leadership over a long period of time that had allowed the police to get away with murder literally and figuratively, allowed City Hall to become a self-service cafeteria for public servants and their friends, allowed the streets and sidewalks, the pipes and power lines to age and fall apart.
Most of all what was wrong was that LA was a great place but it still wasn’t a city. There was no transcendent vision that we could all embrace, a recognition that our lives are all bound together, that we could rise above efforts to divide us by our race and religion and neighborhood and class and sexual preferences and anything else that can be used to compartmentalize communities of interest and keep them from finding common ground.
“We need a new spirit of Los Angeles,” Dick Riordan called it often, suggesting there might once have been a unifying spirit to the city. But I doubted it.
Antonio was our last and best hope, I believed. We had reached the point of no return where over a quarter century “white flight” had become “middle-class flight,” where the needs of the soaring numbers of poor people had overwhelmed the schools and the services system — genuine community needs that were used to justify to justify the decisions that for deterioration of the quality of life in neighborhoods.
The tax base had eroded, leaving City Hall increasingly dependent on a begrudging middle-class fed up with being stuck with the bills and getting worse services.
And then came Antonio — the man who captured the imagination of so many from all across the city, the man who could excite 50 staunch Republican ladies and gentlemen in the Valley lined up to shake his hand and wish him well in reaching out to every community with respect and open the doors and windows to a healthier public conversation and a greater city for everyone.
Those were the days, there early days.
It took Antonio barely a month to make his choice on who he was — he signed off on a 6 percent a year for five years pay raise dealwith the DWP’s union, Brian D’Arcy’s IBEW. It was Jimmy Hahn’s dirty deal, not his, the start of putting politics over public policy.
And the politics dictated putting political stooges and men of questionable character in charge of the city’s most valuable resource, the DWP. They inevitably increased City Hall’s share of electricity revenue by 60 percent to nearly 20 percent of total bills. Then, the monthly garbage charge to homeowners (only) was tripled to play for police to protect the entire city but only a third of the money made it to the cops — the rest went down the drain of political, not policy, decisions.
Two years later, he had no choice but to keep the labor peace by giving 5 percent raises to other city unions to cement his power even as he was politicizing every department by brow-beating top bureaucrats into submission and demanding total obedience from citizen commissions.
The rest is history.
When the recession hit in 2008, the city’s payroll costs and obligations were far greater than its revenue streams. His answer was to squeeze the public even harder with hikes in rates and fees, to pull out all stops for a sales tax hike for the subway-to-sea, and other rail projects, a billion-dollar HOV lane through Sepulveda Pass.
What had been pay-to-play under his predecessor became an organized pandering to the interests of developers, contractors, consultants and labor unions with Eric Garcetti as City Council President making certain that no criticism was tolerated by demanding unanimity from his colleagues 99.4 percent of the time.
It is no more Antonio’s fault than the fault of every office holder, and the business, civic and labor elites, and the community leaders who accepted the flattery and petty favors as if they were peons grateful from the generosity of the lords of the manor.
It is the fault of all of us for our pathetic efforts at resistance, our myopic preoccupation with our own little interests without seeing the pattern of abuse and how it was hardening up into a headless political machine that was just as greedy as all those who exercised money and greedily amassed wealth throughout the city’s history.
Antonio Villaraigosa could have been somebody; he could have been a contender for bigger things. He could have been great.
The pundits and professors, the insiders and observers all agree he wasn’t as bad as mayor as his critics say or as good as his acolytes say.
They credit him with expanding rail lines, pressing for education reform, overcoming DWP and labor resistance to green energy, a bigger police force and blame him for his failure to show courage in the economic crisis, for failing to create jobs while handing millions in taxpayer subsidies to developers and the wealthy, for putting politics ahead of policy.
We didn’t hire Antonio to be a manager of the bureaucracy. He was unqualified for that job, lacking any managerial experience. He wasn’t even smart enough to pass the bar exam despite four tries. He was the 11 percent mayor who partied in public and in private at the expense of special interests.
No, the Antonio we elected was supposed to be a leader, somebody who could inspire us to “transcend our differences, to meet our collective challenges, and to define our mutual dreams,” somebody we could dream great dreams with, somebody we could help our city fulfill its destiny as “America’s greatest hope.”
Antonio Villaraigosa didn’t live up to the expectations he created but who could in a city where those who wield money and power now as always serve themselves and the millions of ordinary people are so easily divided and conquered.
The funny thing, the sad thing, about his story is he living like a king these last eight years in a mansion with servants and drivers and bodyguards and hundreds of people at his beck and call were enough to make him feel that he achieved success beyond his wildest dreams.
And he did. We just didn’t know that’s what he meant when he said “dream with me.”
So don’t cry for Antonio. Don’t for a second doubt that the laws of karma are as inexorable as ever.
Antonio’s punishment is that he still needs to live like a king and the only way he could rake in the dough to pay those kinds of bills is to spend his life in his official capacity as the “former first Latino mayor of Los Angeles.”
You watch he will be reinvented as America’s Latino Ambassador to the world of corporations and foundations who will pay him well to front for them so well just as he did for similar interests in his hometown.
He’s made friends all over the world in high places and in low places, people who understand the choices he made and why he made them.
So do I. I think he did a helluva job playing the part he created. The test of the man is what he does now that’s he’s just a has-been like so many of us. I wouldn’t under-estimate the genius of the man.
Adios, Antonio, fare thee well.