City Voice: The Mayor is cheating … on L.A.

Breaking the commandment against adultery shouldn’t disqualify you for public office.

Still, I don’t think the adulterer should expect cheers from the
Jewish community. This is especially true when the official is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has made his family and his life story a big part of his persona.

I felt let down by the news that Villaraigosa had an affair with television journalist Mirthala Salinas, who has reported on the mayor for Telemundo. (Her involvement with the mayor violated one of the three ethics rules I give my USC journalism students: Don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t sleep with your news sources.)

I was disappointed because he offered hope for uniting a fractious city behind some common goals important to the middle class and poor — the majority of the city’s residents, which includes many Jews — teachers, social workers, supermarket checkers and blue-collar workers. And he has had the support of the city’s most affluent Jews, who are among his campaign contributors.

Jews have a vested interest in working with the rest of Los Angeles on improving the public schools, saving affordable rentals from condo conversions, creating better transit and other issues.

As a political leader, Villaraigosa crossed ethnic lines in his successful campaign and began his tenure the same way. He has dashed from one part of the city to another — a highly visible mayor — and has been as at home in a synagogue as in a community meeting in South Los Angeles.

That is good. His predecessor, James Hahn, stuck to the office too much, neglecting the symbolic aspects of the job.

“People like to touch and feel the mayor,” said professor Peter Dreier, chair of Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Program and a Villaraigosa supporter.

But as his term moved along, he seemed scattered, bouncing from one event to another, bragging about existing on four hours of sleep a night, embracing the television cameras, always with a big smile. Recently, I heard a Russian say that Americans smile too much. I don’t want the mayor to grump around like Putin, but that huge grin in every photograph starts to look insincere.

As he dashed about, Villaraigosa always talked about his climb up the ladder from the Eastside, and portrayed himself as a family man. As reporters Duke Helfand and Steve Hymon noted in the Los Angeles Times, his family was featured in campaign literature and — until recently — on the mayoral Web site. He was a family guy, perfect for a city that despite the heavily publicized Hollywood and Westside glitz puts a high premium on family values.

Did he think he could keep his private life hidden? Privacy seems impossible in today’s media atmosphere, where news is shaped through the Internet. On Jan. 29, blogger Luke Ford reported that the mayor and his wife had not been seen together for 10 months and he was no longer wearing his wedding ring. The chase was on, and this month Beth Barrett of the Daily News broke the story of the affair.

After several days, the short-attention- span news media had moved on to other stories, and the mayor has been hard at work repairing his image. Success is important for the city and him personally. He is expected to run for re-election and may be a candidate for governor.

Professor Dreier said he thinks the mayor can come back.

“I think the reporters are more interested in his personal life than the public is,” Dreier said.

With Villaraigosa, he said, “a lot of people feel let down on a personal level,” but the mayor’s future depends on “whether the crime rate goes down, the schools improve” and on his ability to deal with matters as mundane but important as potholes in the streets.

And that’s going to be difficult. Even though a City Charter reform greatly increased the power of the mayor, a municipal official is limited in solving problems that are national in scope. You can’t build a subway to the sea without federal funds. And every city in the country is fighting for more state and federal funds for schools.

“His biggest problem is that he raised expectations real high, and it is almost impossible to reach those goals,” Dreier said.

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, he said, “there will be a lot more funds flowing to L.A., and he’s got a lot of people expecting miracles and that’s part of the problem.”

The immediate spotlight is on the public schools.

Villaraigosa raised the money and provided the campaign know-how to allow his candidates to become a majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

The mayor moved quickly to shape district policy. His aides prepared a series of initiatives speedily adopted by the school board.

The measures are designed to measure student performance, decrease the drop-out rate, improve education for students who are learning English and build smaller schools. Training of principals would be improved and parent involvement would be encouraged.

What will happen to these lofty goals is uncertain. History tells us that board proposals turn to mush as they make their way through the district’s bureaucracy. Since his staff wrote the proposals, the mayor will take the heat for their success or failure.

This is unglamorous work, requiring great focus. The mayor, Los Angeles’ most visible and powerful public official, is the only one who can make it work. Making things work is a big commandment in politics and government. If Villaraigosa follows through on his promises, his failure to obey the biblical injunction might well be forgiven.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at