LETTER FROM WASHINGTON    DANA WILKIE
A kinder, gentler mayor

January 29, 2007

It was not terribly long ago – well, 10 years, but time flies – that Antonio Villaraigosa was just one of those upstarts in Sacramento, the fresh-faced product of a term-limits law that was starting to strip the statehouse of its institutional knowledge.

Villaraigosa had come to Sacramento four years after California voters approved a measure limiting Assembly members to six years in office and state senators to eight. The law was just beginning to take effect, robbing the Capitol of people with political savvy and skills and replacing them with newcomers who lacked the time in office to build a reputation that might win attention and respect in California politics.

And so the newcomers tended to resort to the next best thing: publicity gimmicks.

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Back then, the Los Angeles-area assemblyman was not beyond a bit of theatrics to win press attention. Early in his legislative career, for instance, the Democrat protested a proposal to inflict corporal punishment on teen graffiti offenders by taking a wooden paddle and walloping a manikin with such gusto that the doll's watermelon-behind dissolved into chunks of broken fruit on the Capitol's press room floor.

Then there was his following act, when he publicly berated a reporter – complete with high-decibel ranting and dramatic arm-waving – for questioning whether the assemblyman would really attack one of his own four children with the same vigor he pounced on that unfortunate mannequin.

Last week, a far different version of that statehouse newcomer made the rounds in the nation's capital.

With a dozen years of California political experience now under his belt – as assemblyman, Assembly speaker, L.A. city councilman and now mayor – Villaraigosa has evolved into a genuinely seasoned and skilled politician, one who is certainly more sedate and circumspect than that brash guy of the mid-1990s.

Now firmly established in California politics, Villaraigosa appears to be positioning himself on the national stage as a new Democratic face to watch. After the way he moved around this city last week, one has to wonder if this Latino up-and-comer plans on making a Barack Obama-like splash in coming years.

During his visit, Villaraigosa moved seamlessly from a National Press Club speech to dinner with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to the unveiling of an ambitious anti-poverty agenda at the 75th annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He commanded plenty of attention – this time without the gimmicks – by calling for tax-free learning savings accounts for students, new money for preschool, expanding the earned income tax credit and teaching children global workplace skills such as graphic design and information technology, all of which dovetailed nicely with the Democrats' recent takeover of Congress. He attended the State of the Union speech as guest of newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, then delivered the Democrats' weekly radio address on Saturday.

BOXER'S NEW STATURE

Since we're on the topic of California politicians coming into their own, let's consider to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

After more than a quarter century in Congress, the Democratic lawmaker is now enjoying national stature as the new chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer had a made-in-heaven platform last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering, where the hot topic (no pun, really) was global warming, and what mayors intend to do about it.

Boxer was full of jokes about her small stature, comments on how committee ranking Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma thinks climate change is a hoax, and pep-squad encouragement to local officials who are trying to address the issue. Already, she's faulted President Bush for taking only “baby steps” to fight global warming. And she told the mayors that as chairwoman, she plans to introduce legislation that would genuinely tackle the problem – after much consultation, she said, with senators and interest groups.

No doubt folks will be watching closely to see if Boxer can translate her new opportunity into genuine leadership, given her tendency toward a take-no-prisoners style of liberal politics that has often seemed more focused on rhetoric than policy-shaping.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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