January 05, 2007

Latino Man of the Year: Antonio Villaraigosa

Commentary By Juan Esparza Loera and Vicki Adame
Vida en el Valle

Early during his first term in the state Assembly, Los Angeles Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa tried to sooth the worries of people concerned about anti-immigrant legislation coming from Washington, D.C. and Sacramento.

That day in 1995 inside the parish hall at St. John’s Cathedral in Fresno, observers marveled at how well Villaraigosa communicated with people. Others predicted a rise to power for the former high school dropout.

Those predictions have come true. Today, the 53-year-old Villaraigosa is the 41st mayor of Los Angeles — after serving as Assembly Speaker, and on the Los Angeles City Council — and instantly became one of the top Latino leaders in the country following his 2005 election.

Telegenic, charismatic, fluent in Spanish and English, and charming, Villaraigosa has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate once Arnold Schwarzenegger is termed out in 2010.

The life of Villaraigosa has included being listed as one of the 50 most beautiful Latinos by People En Español, a guest appearance on ‘The George López Show,’ and numerous magazine covers.

Even though a court ruling stopped state legislation that would have given him greater control over his city’s public schools, Villaraigosa has vowed to appeal. Observers believe the mayor can win by showing the public he is a fighter.

The son of a single mother who grew up in East Los Angeles, Villaraigosa’s rise to power has not surprised friends or foes.

He didn’t win the mayorship on his second try by relying exclusively on the Latino vote, even though the city’s Latino population is among the biggest in the world. Latinos, who make up 48 percent of the city’s population, account for about a quarter of registered voters.

Orlando Sentinel columnist Myriam Márquez said Villa-raigosa would have lost resoundingly if he had attempted such a divide-and-conquer strategy, even in a predominantly minority city.

In a column following Villaraigosa’s mayoral triumph, she wrote:

“It’s a lesson that other Latinos need to heed. Notably, New York’s Fernando Ferrer, a Puerto Rican, who already lost one attempt to become the mayor of the Big Apple, failing to get a majority of the black vote and attracting few white voters. As it is, New York’s Latino population is hugely diverse, and Ferrer must do much more than court Puerto Ricans if he’s to win the Latino vote — much less sufficient votes overall to beat Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Villaraigosa’s victory should sound a wake-up call to Central Florida’s fast-growing Latino community, too — particularly in Osceola County, Kissimmee and east Orlando. Past rivalries between Puerto Rican candidates (and also between Puerto Ricans and other Latinos) vying for the same local seats have resulted in the continual reign of non-Latino white candidates with little interest in the Latino community. Latino candidates split a potential win, turning it into another loss.”

Villaraigosa pushed what she called “a Clintonesque agenda, vowing to be every-body’s mayor, to fight for the middle class.” A Democrat, Villaraigosa also built coalitions with Republicans from the predominantly white Los Angeles suburbs.

“Villaraigosa made history as L.A.’s first Latino mayor since the Civil War period, but more than that, his engaging personality and political acumen serve as a blueprint for other candidates of any color,” she wrote.

Other columnists and writers have marveled at Villaraigosa’s ease in which he handles conflicts and tries to govern from the center. During last year’s massive immigration marches, the mayor supported the marchers but was careful not to be seen with a Mexican flag.

But Villaraigosa can’t hide his ethnicity, something which has made him a voice for the Latino community throughout the country.

In his election night speech, Villaraigosa said, ”Our goal is to bring this city together.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on the Eastside or the Westside, whether you’re from South Los Angeles or Sylmar. It doesn’t matter whether you go to work in a fancy car, or on a bus, or whether you worship in a cathedral, or a synagogue or a mosque. we are all Angelinos and we all have a difference to make,” he said.

Villaraigosa was raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family. Villaraigosa has spoken many times about watching his father beat his mother.

Although he never joined a gang as a youth, the mayor-elect had a spotty school record, especially during high school, which he attended intermittently.

During that time he sported a tattoo that said ‘Born to raise hell,’ but he never really did that and ultimately graduated from UCLA. He later earned a degree from the People’s College of Law, a Los Angeles law school that focuses on social issues, particularly labor organization.

After getting his law degree, Villaraigosa became an organizer with a teachers’ union and later won a seat in the state Assembly. Prevented from serving longer because of term limits, he ran successfully for City Council.

Others to watch in 2007

Bill Richardson: The New Mexico governor is a sure bet to throw his hat in the ring for the 2008 presidential election. He’s already made some moves: He came out in support of undocumented mother Elvira Arellano and helped win the release of Chicago Tribune reporter being held in Sudan. The first shows his support of immigration reform, the latter shows his finesse and diplomacy with foreign affairs.

Dean Flórez: It’s no secret the state senator from Shafter in Kern County has his sights set on higher office. This year will likely see him positioning himself for a run for statewide office in 2008, most likely state controller or treasurer.

Silvestre Reyes: The El Paso Democrat has been named chairman of the House Intelligence Committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The former Border Patrol administrator has signaled he will be busy with oversight of the president’s war efforts in Iraq.

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