Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made "daring to dream" a theme for his final state of the city address, which he also used to challenge the candidates running to succeed him to focus more on education.
He summed up Angelenos as people who "think big" and "swing for the fences," saying he began his tenure as mayor in dramatic fashion, by shooting for the seemingly impossible.
"Eight years ago, we dared to dream," he said of his goals then to improve public safety, environmental sustainability, the city's transportation system, and students' academic performance. And in all those areas, he said, "we promised to deliver, and we did."
Villaraigosa, in a break from his prepared remarks, acknowledged there were"failures" during his time in office, but he said it was the result of taking risks.
"You fail sometimes when you dare to dream," Villaraigosa said at UCLA's Royce Hall. "You fail sometimes when you fight, even when you're fighting alone."
Villaraigosa admonished what he perceives as timidity on the part of Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel, the two mayoral candidates in the May 21 election.
Villaraigosa recounted his own struggles with school, having dropped out of high school twice before becoming inspired by a teacher to believe in himself.
Education policy is "personal for me," Villaraigosa said, and not a "footnote on a campaign mailer or fodder for an attack ad."
"It has been disheartening to see our mayoral candidates devote so little time to a serious discussion of how to deliver a quality education to all our children," Villaraigosa said, expressing impatience at what he perceives as a lack of "comprehensive visions" the candidates seemingly pursuing "one or two planks in a plan about an audit of this or a piecemeal change in that."
"We want the whole plan ... we want to elect a leader," Villaraigosa said. "We want to choose someone who won't nibble cautiously around the edges."
Villaraigosa urged the mayoral candidates to take the same kind of leadership that comes with the powers afforded to the mayors in New York and Chicago, who are formally tasked with running the school districts in their cities.
Although the mayor of Los Angeles has no formal role in education, Villaraigosa has made education one of his priorities since taking office in 2005.
Villaraigosa operates the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an independent educational nonprofit group that partners with the Los Angeles Unified School District and oversees 22 schools in predominantly low-income neighborhoods in an effort to boost student performance.
Villaraigosa said test scores have risen at the partnership schools, while academic achievement has also improved in the rest of the LAUSD, with dropout rates also reduced.
Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman said the councilman's campaign will challenge Greuel to an education-focused debate, scheduled for May.
"We agree that education has to be seriously debated in this campaign, and that's why today we are calling on Controller Wendy Greuel to join us in a debate focused on education issues and the role of education in the mayor's office," Millman said, adding the two candidates debated education policy with other candidates during the primary election.
During a celebration of the 25th anniversary of LA's BEST, a program created by Mayor Tom Bradley to provide after-school activities and study help to LAUSD students, Greuel -- who said she helped establish the program -- said she "wholeheartedly agrees" with Villaraigosa's suggestion to tackle education policy as part of her campaign.
Greuel said the education issue was a personal one for her, noting that she is the "parent of a kid in LAUSD in the fourth grade" and a graduate of an LAUSD school.
Education is "something I talk about everyday," Greuel said, especially because "10 percent of the schools are responsible for 50 percent of the dropouts."
Villaraigosa also spoke on the improvements he made in increasing funding for public transit projects, reducing carbon emissions, attracting businesses, and the various challenges he has faced since 2005, among them a "billion dollar structural shortfall" in the city budget.
The city consolidated departments, cut 5,000 jobs and negotiated city employees to increase their contribution to their retirement and health care.
"For the sake of prosperity in the long-term, we shared sacrifice in the short term," Villaraigosa said.
And after raising the retiring age for new employees from 55 to 65, who will receive 75 percent rather than 100 percent of their salary as pensions, Villaraigosa said the city "must do more."
With the city still facing a more than $150 million budget deficit, Villaraigosa early in his speech previewed his upcoming budget proposal -- due out on April 19 -- saying that it will be balanced and contain a healthy reserve.
Public safety was one area Villaraigosa did not budge, saying that his budget will fund the more than 10,000 officers in the police department.
As with education, he urged his successor to not only preserve the progress he'd made, expanding the police ranks from 9,284 in 2005 to more than 10,000, but also to "raise it again."
Villaraigosa said because he led a comprehensive plan to tackle gangs, violent crime has dropped 49 percent since he took office, while property crime fell by 30 percent, with the most dramatic dip happening in gang-related crimes, which fell 55 percent.
"We pledged to focus resources on those communities most plagued by violence," Villaraigosa said. "We promised to develop programs that addressed the root causes of why young people join gangs in the first place."
In response to the speech, Councilman Paul Krekorian said he was "proud of the work" that the City Council and Villaraigosa have "done together to create jobs and establish a leaner and more sustainable city budget," including taking "significant and difficult steps to reduce a projected billion dollar deficit by more than 80 percent."
Outside Royce Hall, city employees used Villaraigosa's speech to demand the city put more funding into city services and hiring workers, but did not offer any specifics about where the money would come from.
"Los Angeles has weathered a tough recession, but now it is time for the city to begin to look forward," said Cheryl Parisi, chair of the Coalition of LA City Unions.
"We need to begin restoring good jobs and vital services, and broaden the economic base of our city. It's time to revitalize and rebuild our great city and reinvest in our communities and public services."
They urged the city government not to continue the trend of contracting out for services.
"Now is not the time to sell off our city's core assets through privatization or cut more services. Now is the time to turn the corner and start fixing our city," said David Sanders, regional director of SEIU Local 721, which represents 10,000 city workers.