Villaraigosa Vanishes . . . Or Does He?

Which Way L.A.? quizzed Mayor Villaraigosa yesterday (3/6/12) along with David Abel (publisher of the Planning Report) and Jim Newton (L.A. Times political columnist). Warren Olney, as always, moderated with a veteran reporter's skill and with the insight of a long-time Angeleño.

Mayor Villaraigosa had seemed to fade from view in recent months while candidates for his job ramped up their campaigns and the city council roiled with redistricting dissention. In fact, fading from L.A. has seemed to be the mayor's MO since early in his second term.

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Villaraigosa's sudden and unexpected return to the front pages led to the Olney interview.

Interest in the mayor is booming again. Profiles - more positive than his usual press in Los Angeles - appeared almost simultaneously in Time Magazine and the New York Times. The stories highlighted Villaraigosa's appointment as chair of this summer's Democratic National Convention and his elevation (something of a pro forma process) as spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Ron Kaye, the mayor's sharpest observer, wasn't impressed, nor were other skeptics (here and here). A subtext of political chicanery and outright corruption runs through these critiques of the mayor's "style over substance" leadership, backed by a recent report on criminality in city government by some University of Illinois academics.

It's hard even for less partisan analysts to come up with anything more than "he's doing as good a job as he can" in defense of the mayor's record. None of the high-sounding labels he sought for himself has stuck to the fast moving Villaraigosa: Transit Mayor, Green Tech Mayor, Jobs and Justice Mayor, School Boss Mayor.

Some of these goals - principally regional transit - would have advanced with or without Villaraigosa's cheerleading, since the MTA is the about only unit of local government with any money. Even the plan for speeding up Measure R spending to build more light rail wasn't the mayor's alone.

Villaraigosa, unfortunately, focused on results that never solved the conundrum that the machinery of government in Los Angeles presents. Partially reformed by the charter revisions of 1999, Los Angeles remains one of the most balkanized local governments in the nation and among the most opaque to its citizens. Villaraigosa, trained in the "go along to get along" traditions of the state legislature, never understood that the city hall system he headed was suspended in transition between unworkable technocracy and a more humane democracy.

He could have been a contender, but Villaraigosa never understood the system nor did his ambitions ever lead him to envision how that system might be more thoroughly reformed by his leadership. He spoke grandly - in the manner of Sacramento pols - about things a mayor could never do. But he never gave voice to the genuine aspirations of those he led.

Villaraigosa may be moving to the national stage - perhaps as a future cabinet member - but he leaves Los Angeles diminished in what the city might be - not a city of better roads and buses but a place of better citizenship.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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