Mayor Villaraigosa's State of the City speech on Wednesday went back to schools, as if the "education mayor" had never left the classroom, had never sought substitute reinvention as the "green jobs mayor" and the "anti-crime mayor" and the "transit mayor" and the "environmental mayor." Those possible identities - like so many quick-change costumes - slipped from the mayor with hardly a shrug.
Still, serial self-invention always made him seem more Angeleño.
The mayor has a year to make some image stick. By then, the campaign to replace him in 2013 will have begun, and each of the candidates will begin by reminding voters of their disappointments: city hall's slippery way with ethics, the $350 million deficit, neighborhood services in decline, and the city's failure to balance residential development with job creation.
The bolder candidates could add a more fundamental disappointment - that a mayor of such apparent promise failed to capture the imagination of Los Angeles. But perhaps this failure was a result of his own deficient imagination. The character of the city seemed to elude him. The habits that propelled him to Speaker of the state Assembly offered nothing to guide a mayor. The political culture of City Hall was too wearying to resist. The commonplaces of being mayor - its combination of powerlessness and celebrity - defeated him. The prize of becoming "chancellor" of L.A. schools meant more to his ambition than better city government.
It isn't surprising that the mayor has recycled school reform as his job. His actual job as mayor proved so unappealing.
The mayor will be 60 when he leaves office, no longer the up-and-comer of 20 years ago and not on the fast track to anywhere (although a 2014 Senate race may be ahead). He has a year before irrelevancy. After that, whatever might be made from this mayor's enthusiasms - a million trees, a thousand cops, a subway to the sea - will be made by someone else.