Daily Breeze

June 2, 2005

Villaraigosa steps into the national politics spotlight
Los Angeles mayor-elect makes it known he sees himself playing a key role in the building of coalitions across racial, ethnic and class lines.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Two weeks after his historic victory in the Los Angeles mayor's race, Antonio Villaraigosa grabbed the spotlight in the nation's capital Wednesday, laying some groundwork for his administration and fueling expectations that he will emerge as one of the most visible Latino leaders in the country.

After a closed-door meeting with the city's full-time policy team here, where he discussed federal funding for homeland security and other initiatives, Villaraigosa received an effusive celebrity welcome at several speaking events. At one, he was asked to autograph copies of a recent edition of Newsweek that featured him on the cover, with the headline "Latino Power."

Villaraigosa, 52, the city's first Latino mayor in more than 130 years, played down his political star power in his comments to reporters and audiences alike.

"I'm going to focus on Los Angeles right now," he said. "I certainly understand that I have a national prominence and stature. To the extent that I'm successful in Los Angeles, it will go a long way to making this story more palpable and real. Right now, all I did was win the election. The tough part is leading the city."

But he also made it clear that he sees himself as a weather vane for American politics and the future of coalition building across racial, ethnic and class lines.

"As L.A. goes, so will go Des Moines, so will go Wichita," he said at a Latino leadership luncheon. "These demographic changes are here to stay. We need to make that work for us. ... I hope that the lessons of this victory are the lessons that no community can go it alone, that all of us are enhanced when we work together."

Political analysts are debating whether Villaraigosa's win in Los Angeles is emblematic of a broader surge in Latino political power or more specific to one city's circumstances.

Villaraigosa supporter Fernando J. Guerra, a lobbyist and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, has compared the situation to the election of large numbers of black mayors in the 1960s and 1970s.

"A Latino now holds the second most powerful mayoralty in the country and governs a city of almost 4 million, with billions and billions of dollars in terms of the budget and billions more in capital programs," he said.

"There's a sense of momentum," he added, pointing to the election last year of two Latinos to the U.S. Senate. "So it's easier for people who otherwise wouldn't have been supportive to take a good look. It's also easier to fund-raise."

Joel Kotkin, an urban affairs expert at the New America Foundation, cautioned that a good deal of Villaraigosa's victory could be attributed to the troubles of incumbent Mayor James Hahn and his loss of the coalition that originally backed him. The city's Latino electorate, which gave 84 percent of its vote to Villaraigosa, has also surged in recent years, Kotkin noted.

"There was kind of a perfect storm for Antonio," he said.

Whatever the case, Villaraigosa's national profile is not likely to be diminished soon.

"He immediately becomes a spokesperson for urban issues in America," Guerra said. "You're almost thrust as mayor of Los Angeles, as mayor of New York, as mayor of Chicago into these positions. He understands the interaction between the federal government and local governments and will probably be a frequent visitor to D.C., trying to get more resources for the city, especially for the police department."

Indeed, Villaraigosa vowed to be a visible presence and forceful advocate in Washington for Los Angeles.

He said officials in the city's lobbying office here asked him "to be as aggressive as possible in meeting with the various (congressional committee) chairs on a bipartisan basis, and I intend to do that."

One manifestation, he said, may be an annual "L.A. day" that brings civic leaders from the region to Washington, similar to a lobbying tactic used by Chicago.

"I want to be as aggressive as New York and Chicago are in meeting with various congressional members and administration officials who make decisions about what cities to fund and what projects to support," he said.

He added that he intends to discuss counter-terrorism funding, on which the city feels it has been short-changed, with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff when Chertoff visits Los Angeles today. Members of Villaraigosa's staff are expected to talk about another high-priority issue, the future of Los Angeles International Airport, with Federal Aviation Administration officials.

Villaraigosa opposed key elements of Hahn's expansion plan, which the FAA approved three days after the election.

Politically, Democrats are eager to showcase Villaraigosa's victory in their fight for the hearts and minds of Latino voters. Party leaders were alarmed that President Bush captured an estimated 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, further eroding that crucial voting bloc's traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party.

"What they're going to read into it is they're developing a deeper bench, with the addition of Villaraigosa, on the national scene," Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at USC, said of the Democrats.

While Villaraigosa didn't attend any official party functions on Wednesday, he did speak at a conference organized by the liberal Campaign for America's Future.

While he described himself as "unabashedly" progressive, Villaraigosa said he could work across party lines -- pointing to his tenure as speaker of the California Assembly -- and said Democrats need to do a better job addressing values like patriotism.

Surveying the largely white audience, he also sounded another warning.

"When we come to a conference like this and we rejoice in the harmony of our agenda and look around and don't see the changing face of America, we have to be concerned," he said. "Our ability to build and mobilize, to bring in a broader group of America is a great challenge."