One on One With Antonio Villaraigosa

This is the third in Sheldon Teitelbaum’s series of interviews with the leading mayoral candidates.

Trust current mayoral candidate and State Assembly Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa to come up with a uniquely strategic location for his storefront headquarters. True, as the ostensible heart of his Valley constituency, the corner of Van Nuys and Sherman Way is pretty much a no-brainer. But there is something elegantly opportune about the fact that it also sits astride the Valley’s first and, so far, only Krispy Kreme.

Like the parent company, Villaraigosa has been around for quite some time, a “big tent” pol and crusader for consensus whose alliances span a broad gamut of communities and interests, including the Westside libs and the city’s billionaire boys’ club. The one thing he has that Krispy Kreme lacks is the imprimatur of kashrut that he has earned during six years of public service. By virtue of his long-standing support for various Jewish causes and institutions in this city, some regard him as perhaps the race’s most authentic landsman. Not surprisingly, our discussion focused mainly on Jewish themes and issues.

Sheldon Teitelbaum: Been a busy Sunday?

Antonio Villaraigosa: I was at West Angeles Church this morning for a fellowship. I don’t do drive-by fellowships. Most electives, when they go to synagogues or churches, they drop in for a half-hour, get introduced, eat and leave…

ST: What do you do, take out a membership and contribute to the building fund?

AV: No, I just stay the whole time. Beginning to end.

ST: Where do you get your gregariousness?

AV: My mother. Growing up the 1950s and ’60s, my mother had whites, primarily Jews in City Terrace, blacks, Asians, gays over for dinner all the time. She knew everybody. She had a very broad network of friends. She really educated her kids about issues of tolerance and inhumanity. She was a breed apart.

ST: The Journal just ran a piece by our own Marlene Adler Marks in which she appears to have anointed you the “Jewish” candidate of this race. How does it feel to have been co-opted into the tribe?

AV: I think there’s an acknowledgment that in my six years of public life, I’ve worked hard to represent and reach out to the Jewish community. I’m proud of the fact that I put together almost $15 million spearheading state funding for the Museum of Tolerance, $2 million for the Skirball Museum, $2 million for the Jewish Federation building and the Zimmer Museum. I was the author of a hate crimes reporting bill that I worked with many Jewish leaders and other civil rights leaders to require hate crime reporting in our schools. I was the author of a bill to exempt from state taxes Californians who were part of the slave camp legacy during the Nazi Germany years. I have a long history of working in the community.

ST: Apart from bridge-building for political gain, what pulls you to these causes?

AV: I believe that if government is going to work, it’s got to represent all communities. A leader in an L.A. as diverse as this one has to work around the clock to reach out to as many different communities as possible.

ST: Are you trying to appeal to that liberal/progressive bent still reflected in the Jewish urban demographic?

AV: Oh yes. There’s no question that who I’ve been politically has resonated among the more progressive elements in the Jewish community, and not because of my outreach, but my role in the crafting of legislation in the last six years.

ST: Have folks in the Latino community looked askance at this love affair?

AV: No question. I sided and supported [school board candidate] David Tokofsky and was criticized and vilified by some. I said then that we have to get beyond the idea that the only ones who can represent the community are the people who come from the community. We have to support the best candidates, whoever they may be and from whatever community. The same when I supported Bob Hertzberg for [State Senate] speaker. Many people know Bob was my roommate. I said he should be the next speaker because he was the most qualified… after me. There were legislators who were very angry and critical. They thought Latinos had some kind of monopoly on the speakership. I said no, that’s not the way it works.

ST: Speaking of Boyle Heights, I found myself wondering recently if it wasn’t in danger of becoming our answer to Poland — a place with anti-Semitism and no Jews. What is it in the 21st century that would impel a couple of Latino kids to paint a virulently anti-Semitic mural on a wall facing some main thoroughfares?

AV: I think what’s wrong is that there’s an incredible lack of understanding. Only when you remember and educate people of the horrors committed by man against man are we able to learn from those experiences and create a better world for us. It’s important for there to be curricula that focus on human relations and that really work to create the context for the important discussions that need to occur at a very young age emphasizing our humanity and commonality.

ST: I’d remind you that there are communities in this country in which anti-Jewish sentiment became more a problem of the educated than of the working classes and poor…

AV: That’s amazing. It’s hard for me to relate because I grew up in a home diametrically opposed to anything like that. When I did my hate crime reporting bill last year right after the shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, I brought together rabbis, human relations experts and civil rights [leaders]. And I said I’m not interested in doing a big press conference but in something you all think makes sense. They said we needed a statewide human relations commission that works as a clearinghouse and as an infrastructure of human-relations support from the state. And we needed a hate-crimes reporting mechanism that requires our schools to track hate crimes. L.A. Unified and other districts are really not doing a good job of tracking hate crimes. I put both bills together. One wasn’t signed, the other was.

ST: Do you have a sense of the Jewish community as a one-issue demographic?

AV: This community has always been more tolerant than others, but I believe that every community has to continually work to address the bias and intolerance among us. This is something all of us have to work on continually — the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a place and people say, “‘How come you people don’t speak English?” All of us in the great experiment that I think L.A. is have to continually work to build the bridges. I was part of a Latino-Jewish round table and a black-Latino round table 20 years ago. We need to engage in these conversations about how we build shared communities and focus on the common struggles we have.

ST:I understand that Haim Saban is one of your contributors and supporters. Haim is a stand-up guy. But as someone who has put education as their first priority, what do you tell parents and educators who may regard companies like Saban Entertainment as the anti-Christ?

AV: I don’t accept that thinking. My children have watched his shows, and they’re good kids. If there was a show I didn’t like as a parent, I have the opportunity to turn it off. Haim is a wonderful, generous human being. He is committed to creating a better community for more people here. He sees me as someone who is committed to expanding the definition of public safety to creating a better safety net and improving the quality of life for more people. We have a lot in common, not to mention our shared “Sephardic” background.

A National Unity Government for L.A.

The more time I spend trailing the Los Angeles mayoral candidates, the more I find myself musing about rehabilitating the commissariat as a form of government. Or, failing such "Red Dawn"/"Red Alert" scenarios, perhaps we might seek something akin to the national unity administration now under contemplation in Israel. I say this not just to be provocative — well not only. It just strikes me as a huge waste of precious talent, integrity and commitment to be forced by a winner-takes-all electoral system to have to pick just one of these outstanding people for mayor while jettisoning the others.

How very novel to feel this way about an impending election, considering the impulse to hold one’s nose that attended the major elections we’ve experienced since the summer in Canada, the U.S. and, most recently, Israel. I’m almost sorry that, as a permanent resident and faithful taxpayer, I do not have the right to vote.

The current mayoral dog-and-pony show wended its way to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino this week for what the candidates now purport to be only the 27th (and not, as I reported last week, the 40th) of some 80 prospective face-offs. Trailing after them, I found myself deeply moved (as often I am) by Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s deft assessment of the unusual embarrassment of electoral riches facing us.

"The people who are with us this evening," he intoned, "are men and women who have chosen a career of service to the community. They know that there are no civilizations without cities, and they know that it is their task to see to it that cities remain civilized. For as it is said, ‘Crave for the well-being of the city, because without just governance, a man will swallow up his neighbor.’"

There was certainly no danger of such in this crowd, not least because it is the esteemed rabbi’s enlightened custom that participants who may not be properly introduced begin programs of this nature by embracing those on one’s immediate left and right for a vigorous round of "Hineh Ma Tov." Having made the acquaintance of a fellow Montreal expatriate in this fashion, I recommend this most Californian practice, and would ask the candidates to consider adopting it for future City Council meetings. I would suggest this for the Knesset as well, but I also think of myself as a realist.

In many respects, as I have noted, the candidates for the April election and June runoff share a common sense of the ills that plague this city. In addition, they seem to agree, in a broad sense, on those measures necessary to remedy them. Judging the candidates by their word, no matter who is elected, we can expect renewed emphasis on establishing neighborhood councils, demands for greater personal accountability by city department heads (including the police chief), common-sense solutions to pressing traffic and noise problems, and sustained efforts to improve the school system.

Last week, some may recall, I asked why the candidates for mayor, whose powers have traditionally been restricted to matters of budget, appointing commissioners and exercising veto privileges, spend as much time as they do calling for educational reform. The answer, I learned from State Controller Kathleen Connell and Councilman Joel Wachs, rests in the potential efficacy of the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit.

Mayor Riordon succeeded in placing school reform on the municipal agenda. The other candidates, with almost no exceptions, say they will do whatever they can to maintain this momentum. The result could be a spate of new charter schools, greater parental oversight of teachers and principals, widespread after-school and pre-kindergarten programs, and if real-estate broker and current Parks and Recreation Commissioner Steve Soboroff has his way, the eventual replacement of L.A. Unified by neighborhood school districts.

In addition, the candidates appear to share a sense that while the police department must be held accountable for Rampart, the city’s first priority must be to bolster sagging morale, stem the loss of personnel, and reverse a rising crime rate and attendant decline in arrests.

Why, asks Antonio Villaraigosa, were 68 line officers implicated in the Rampart abuses, but not a single captain, commander or deputy chief? Why, added Wachs, was Chief Parks, who already makes a quarter-million dollars a year, secretly awarded a merit raise of $30,000? How long, asked Soboroff, can we retain a police chief when 85 percent of the force is unhappy with their work, leadership and conditions of employment?

The remedy for this set of ailments, they all attest, lies in establishing greater accountability at the top; fairer disciplinary procedures at the bottom; increased civilian oversight; emphasis on community policing; inducements for police to reside within city limits; flexible work schedules; pensions in line with those of comparable sectors; and most of all, a police chief committed to genuine reform.

If the candidates differ, they do so most glaringly in matters of style. And style, as Connell observed, is an integral component of any municipal administration.

Villaraigosa stresses the need for consensus, for bringing a disparate and polarized population together around common goals and visions. Soboroff wants less talk and more action, preferably the kind that costs nothing but makes for greater efficiency. He is a real-estate broker, and his thing is "closing." Connell emphasizes her experience running a major governmental enterprise, and her successes in holding large and unwieldy institutions to account. Wachs will continue to push for greater transparency in government, and an end to City Hall’s pandering to special interests.

They are all serious in their intent, and I believe each of them, as I think did most in attendance that evening. No, I did not conduct an exit poll to make that call. It was enough to discern the only discordant note of the evening, when Soboroff implied that his rivals were motivated by the kind of job seeking triggered by term limits. This crowd wouldn’t have it. Indeed, there was some hissing. But it virtually kvelled when Wachs recounted how his own parents, who once belonged to VBS, had labored 29 years before to help him gain office.

"Some of you remember how my mother ran the headquarters, because we only had $24,000 to campaign with, and how my father stood in front of Gelson’s and the markets handing out cards that said ‘Vote for my son Joel.’ When the campaign was over, the late Art Seidenbaum did a half-hour special on KCET, not about me, but about the role my mother and father played in the election.

"When it was done — and I’ll never forget this — they asked my father and mother, ‘What do you want out of all this?’ And my father said, ‘I want he should be a good boy.’"

He is. They are all good people. And we are blessed for it.