Has Villaraigosa succeeded as L.A.’s mayor?

Years ago, I was complaining about one of our governors to a colleague, Jack Germond, an experienced and highly respected national political reporter. Germond, who had reported from many states, regarded my analysis with skepticism. He said he seldom met a statehouse reporter like me who thought well of the governor, even if the chief executive was doing a good job.

Germond was expressing one of the truths of political journalism: While absence may make the heart grow fonder, daily proximity breeds criticism and contempt. I thought of his comments as I was writing this column considering whether Antonio Villaraigosa has succeeded in his two terms as mayor of Los Angeles, which end in a few weeks.

Assessments from journalists who write about him frequently range from scorn to disappointment. Blogger Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote, “It turned out he was just a song and dance man, entertaining but weak, afraid of standing up for what he knew was right, content to live like a millionaire at public expense and enjoy fine wine, food and entertainment at the expense of the greed merchants.” Jim Newton commented in the Los Angeles Times, “He’s not what many had hoped he’d be. … He promised something great. He delivered something merely good.”

My take is more positive. I’m not offering up a detailed analysis of Los Angeles’ eight years with Villaraigosa, but I’ll cite two issues that have been somewhat lost amid the media concentration on the city’s fiscal crisis and the May 21 city election. One is ethnic relations, the other mass transportation.

On relations among ethnic groups, much of Villaraigosa’s job has been outreach; Jewish Journal reporter Jared Sichel gave a flavor of it in these pages last week when he wrote that the mayor “has been to Shabbat dinner, lit the menorah, and he broke matzah with friends at a Passover seder.” Such visits to homes, community centers and places of worship are good public relations, feel-good politics that have their place in binding the city together.

But his greatest accomplishment in race relations has come from his support for a drastic change in the way the Los Angeles Police Department handles poor ethnic communities and dissident groups, a process begun by his predecessor Mayor Jim Hahn. This has reduced the conflict between the LAPD and such communities and groups. Those conflicts were a leading cause of the riots in 1965 and 1992 and L.A.’s ongoing racial conflicts before, between and after these traumatic events. It has been the greatest step in improving Los Angeles relations in many years.

Villaraigosa doesn’t get all the credit. As KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze noted in the public radio station’s excellent assessment of the Villaraigosa years, the mayor got a break when Hahn, his predecessor, dumped old-school Police Chief Bernard Parks, who is African-American. The move cost Hahn African-American support and probably led to his loss to Villaraigosa in 2005. But it cleared the way for two reform police chiefs — William Bratton, appointed by Hahn, and Charlie Beck, picked by Villaraigosa. “I think he gets credit in that he stayed out of the way,” author Joe Domanick, a student of the LAPD, told Stoltze. “All he had to do was support the two best police chiefs the LAPD has ever had.”

Under the new style of LAPD leadership, crime dropped — violent crime is down 40.2 percent; property crime, 23.6 percent; gang crime, 37.5 percent. A daring and imaginative program of working with the heavily Latino and African-American gang members, advocated by civil rights activist and attorney Connie Rice, was embraced by the LAPD and brought under the supervision of the mayor’s office by Villaraigosa, increasing the ranks of women, African-Americans and Asian-Americans; the police department grew to Villaraigosa’s goal of 10,000 officers. Critics say Villaraigosa hit his 10,000 goal by moving 200 officers from the General Services Department to the police department, meaning the mayor only hired 800 additional cops. But that’s nitpicking.

Villaraigosa also deserves a top grade for his deep involvement in securing the federal dollars that will help finance a big expansion of mass transportation. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he lobbied hard last year for congressional approval of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s mass transportation bill that will create hundreds of thousands jobs around the country by accelerating the construction of transit and highway projects. 

The measure contains a provision, originated in the mayor’s office, permitting the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to borrow money for the stepped-up construction, which will be repaid through a voter-approved sales tax increase. An MTA official told me $1.75 billion would be made available through next year, speeding up construction and putting new transit on a 10-year completion schedule, rather than the 30 years it would have taken before the new law passed.

Villaraigosa complains the news media hasn’t given him enough credit for such accomplishments. And in that, he’s right. But the mayor also has to accept some of the blame for his reputation. His affection for the high life — his divorce, two-high profile romances, a visit with bad boy Charlie Sheen at the opening of a new bar in Mexico — doesn’t burnish an image of a serious person.

Drawn to the sensational, and viewing the mayor against the backdrop of daily City Hall turmoil, it’s easy for the media and the public to sell him short. That’s a mistake. Villaraigosa’s accomplishments — especially with transportation and the LAPD’s race relations — will be improving the city long after his term ends. 

What Jack Germond told me about governors can apply to mayors, too. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).