DNC’s Antonio Villaraigosa: Melancholy prince of Latino politics

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If Antonio Villaraigosa isn’t angry, he appears to be.

Certainly he seems to be brooding, though with a smilethe Los Angeles mayor always seems to be smiling, even as he verbally dissects the Republican Party’s leadership, using words as if they be rapier or switchblade.

Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks to a reporter as he tour the floor at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

And he finds that leadership wanting as he entertained reporters in Tampa, with repartee and playfulness. You half expected him to unearth a skull of one of those Hispanic politicians and remark, “Alas, poor RubioI knew him, Horatio.”

For there is a touch of melancholia in Villaraigosa these days as he prepares for his role as chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. They should be the best days of Antonio Villaraigosa, and in one sense they are. But, realistically, they are also his worst days.

It might even be both fair and accurate to sayas some California pundits are suggestingthat the convention will be Villariagosa’s Last Hurrah as he soon sets off on a course of political uncertainty.

The 59-year-old Villaraigosa used to be the yardstick by which Latino politicians were measured in America. His historic 2005 electionas the city’s first Latino mayor in 130 yearsset him apart.

There were other Latino elected officials in the country, for sure, but none had captured the imagination of the country the way Villaraigosa did.

But then, as if emboldened by the election of the country’s first black president, the landscape for America’s Hispanic politicians changed dramatically.

In 2010, Florida elected Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate. The same year, Nevada elected Brian Sandoval governor, while New Mexico elected Susana Martinez as its governor as well.

All three were landmark elections in their own right. All three new office-holders were younger than Villaraigosa. Now in 2012 enter Ted Cruzthe presumptive U.S. Senator from Texas. All those four Latino politiciansall Republicanshold or will hold statewide offices, with far more authority and importance than being mayor of a large American city.

“Antonio is no longer the way you judge Hispanic politicians in America,” says California political consultant William Orozco. “Suddenly, Antonio finds himself lapped on the track.

“The American political landscape is no longer his alone, if it ever was.”

It is a sobering realization for someone who has been enjoying the intoxicated heights of politics for much of the last decade, even longer if you count his time in the California State Legislature, where serving as a high profile Assembly Speaker catapulted him into the Los Angeles mayoral scramble.

When Villaraigosa accepted the task of chairing the convention earlier this year, he did so knowing it would only heighten his national profile at a time when it needed a jump start.

Because of the city’s term limitation laws, Villaraigosa faced the prospect of stepping down next summer after eight years in office, leaving Los Angeles in near financial ruin, a questionable legacy of his own and only high hopes that he can somehow manage a political turnaround.

A Cabinet seat in the second Obama administration, if there is one, loomed for the futureand little else. There are no apparent openings in California’s two senate seats and gubernatorial office, and Villaraigosa would be only one of several ambitious Democrats in line, if there were.

But Villaraigosa may never have envisioned that the Republicans would showcase all those statewide Hispanic office-holdersand in prime timeto bolster the GOP presidential ticket with the effectiveness they have shown.

It put Villaraigosa in a unique situation: Not only was he now the president’s main Hispanic surrogate, on the attack against Mitt Romney; he was now having to diminish other Latinos and their rightful gains, which Villaraigosaas someone who would like to be governor or senatorundoubtedly respects privately.

Presumably that was Villaraigosa’s mission when he flew into Tampa like some unwanted guest into the convention and began his saber-rattling by talking to anyone with a microphone or a notebook.

Villaraigosa called all those Latino Republican officials “window-dressing,” but unconvincingly.

villaraigosa and obama

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greets President Barck Obama during LULAC Conference. (AP Photo)

Back in Los Angeles, a top Latino Democrat in the state laughed at what Villaraigosa had said, knowing it was pure political bravado.

“If this is tokenism,” he said of all those Hispanics elected to office as Republicans, “well take it any day!”

But this was typical Antonio, as anyone who has followed his career closely knowslashing out, trying to protect what he thinks is his from being taken away and becoming angry and broody at the frustration of not being able to have it all his way.

And all because, like the melancholy Dane in “Hamlet,” he has father-son issues that haunt him to this day.

Villaraigosa used that personal history, much as Bill Clinton used his own father troubles, to make quick ground in politics with an unusually sympathetic story that for the longest time went unquestioned:

Antonio talked endlessly about being abandoned by his alcoholic, abusive father while he was in kindergarten, about having been raised by a mother he describes as “a woman of indomitable spirit who never stopped believing in me”and who he says spoke five languages and read him Shakespeareand about being additionally traumatized when his father sired another son as part of a second family and christened him with the same name he had given Villaraigosa at birthAntonio Ramon Villar Jr.

How could you not feel for Villaraigosaexcept that this wasn’t quite true.

It turns out that Villaraigosa’s late mother remarried and had a second family while Antonio was still living at home.

And Villaraigosa’s father, Antonio Ramon Villar Sr., finally spoke up for himself in a 2006 interview in which he adamantly challenged the mayor’s allegations.

“God knows that I was never an alcoholic and that I never hurt his mother or abused my family,” Villar Sr. told me, denying the mayor’s long-accepted account of his purported difficult childhood.

“I know the public has been poisoned against me, but this is the truth, so help me God.”

Villaraigosa’s claim that his father later gave another son the exact same name he had given him also is inaccurate.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses volunteers and supporters at OFA-Florida’s Pinecrest office. (Photo/ BarackObama.com)

That other sonchristened Anthony Gustavo Villar, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz – has personally contacted Villaraigosa demanding to know why he has publicly vilified their father, said Estela Villar, Anthony Gustavo’s mother and the wife of Antonio Ramon Villar Sr.

Villar Sr.’s second family portrayed him as a husband and father who has been gentle, loving, kind and deeply religiousand who in half a century of marriage never abused his wife or their four children, nor shown any hints of alcoholism.

“I don’t believe a man can change so dramatically in the way he behaved around one family and another,” Estela Villar told me in her Montebello home. “If he were the way (Villaraigosa) describes him to have been, he would have shown signs with our familyand there were none.”

“My husband has never talked about his life with his other family, and I haven’t pried. But I have my doubts that (my husband) was the kind of spouse and father that (Villaraigosa) has portrayed him to have been.”

It is all filled with the uneasy queasiness that comes with looking into any family, and perhaps no one would bother except that Villaraigosa made it a cornerstone of his story that drew people to himand an entire second family calls the mayor if not a liar, then certainly someone carrying an angry grudge and imagination.

And it is a story that is likely to reworked and used over again as Villaraigosa goes past this convention and re-invents himself for something beyond.

In Los Angeles, many are laughing at the idea – no one is really sure where it beganthat Villaraigosa could be positioning himself with the media and with any following he can muster for a run at the 2016 presidential nomination.

No mayor has ever succeeded in achieving that, though there have been any number who have tried: Among them, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sought the Republican nomination in 2008; and former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic one in 1972, as did former New York Mayor John Lindsay, who had changed parties.

But after 18 years of Villaraigosa in public office and after personally observing him since 1978, it’s become apparent that, no matter what you may think about Antoniohis politics, his incessant self-promotion, his womanizing or any other aspect of his lifethe man is a dominant force in American public life with an uncanny ability not only to overcome personal and political setbacks but to gain strength from them.

Villaraigosa swept into office as if sanctified for greatness. He was the splashiest, most charismatic campaigner the city had seen this side of the silver screen. He was described by some media pundits as the Hollywood-style mayor that Tinseltown deserved. London’s Guardian newspaper had called him “the Latino Tony Blair.”

On the day of his inauguration, Villaraigosa walked from an Inaugural Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to City Hall arm-in-arm with his family, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, and hundreds of friends and supporters. Some described the inspiring rhetoric of his inaugural address as Kennedyesque.

People who should have known better hailed him as the city’s messiah. In 2006, my editor at the Los Angeles Daily Newswhere I was hired to write about politics and Villaraigosa largely because of my long ties to Antoniowould walk through the newsroom boasting openly about his outlandish expectations of the new mayor.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greets supporters at a rally.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greets supporters at a rally. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

“Antonio is our last best hope,” Editor Ron Kaye would announce to his staff, even as I worked on the first story that would be published deconstructing the myth Villaraigosa had built around himselfa story Kaye was aware of and approved. “He’s the last best hope we have for Los Angeles.”

Now a blogger and head of a citizens movement in the city, Kaye has turned 180 degrees on Villaraigosa, with blog entries as harsh as any you will read about Antonio.

What turned public opinion against Villaraigosa? Why did the city’s suck-up glossy, Los Angeles magazine, which trumpets anything Angelino, assess its once beloved mayor as a “FAILURE” in a cover profile?

How could someone who had climbed so high in a city built on stars have fallen so far? And how is it that, regardless of how he’s thought at home, Villaraigosa remains a popular Latino political figure almost everywhere else in America?

Villaraigosa was no ingenue when he first ran for mayor in 2001. He had served in the State Assembly for seven years, several of them as the powerful Assembly Speaker. Antonio was not some political prince or Latino Siddhartha. But the right business and behind-the-scenes power people in the city were already intoxicated on his Kool Aid. Had Villaraigosa been a filmmaker, he would have had a three-picture deal and an office at the studio of his choosing just on the pitch alone.

At another time, there is no telling how far Villaraigosa could have ridden that wave. His misfortune was that he had gotten himself elected mayor at the worst of coming economic times, with the bad luck of unprecedented and unending budget crisis, impending layoffs and increasingly disgruntled labor unions. Those conditions torpedoed Villaraigosa’s agenda: improving schools, ending traffic congestion, greening the city.

The city’s favorite son, though, gave his public an easier, more emotional reason for unleashing its fury. In 2007, a scandalous affair with a Spanish TV anchor-reporter that ended his marriage reduced Villaraigosa’s image to that of an an unfaithful Latin lover, the least respectable role that any actor could be cast in, either in the studio era or today.

Mitt Romney Barack Obama Villaraigoa, Democratic National Convention

President Barack Obama, stands and applauds, center right, after signing HR 4348, the Surface Transportation Bill, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 6, 2012. The bill maintains jobs on transportation projects and prevents interest rate increases on new loans to millions of college students. Also applauding are Sec. of Education Arne Duncan, from left, and Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio R. Villaraigosa. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Villaraigosa surprised many by calling on his survivor’s knack for making it through adversity. Politicos who know him say the real test-under-fire for Villaraigosa had come in 1994 when, with the blessing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he had upset a candidate backed by California’s male Latino political establishment to win his first election: a State Assembly seat in a heavily Hispanic district from which he rose to Assembly Speaker.

Many do not know that Villaraigosa ultimately had to win that election without Molina’s support. She had angrily disassociated herself from him after news broke that during the primary campaign Antonio had been unfaithful to his wife who was fighting cancer at the time. Penniless politically, Villaraigosa had to scramble to convince the Latino political establishment not to challenge him with write-in candidate in the general election.

“No one thought I could win under those circumstances,” Villaraigosa said in an interview at that time. “But I proved them wrong, didn’t I?”

In doing so, Villaraigosa became the most powerful Latino politician not only in Los Angeles but in California. Molina and the old Latino political hacks and bosses could no longer touch him.

“I am playing in a different ball game than any of them ever hasI know that,” Villaraigosa told me in an interview at perhaps his lowest point. “This isn’t a good time for me. But I’m a survivor. I believe in the better angels in our nature, and I’ll call upon them in me just as I expect that side in other people.”

It was 2001, and he had just lost his first mayoral campaign.We were sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles, and everyone there wanted a venti latte along with a handshake and a hug if they could manage it.

Tall, leggy beautiful women who worked in nearby office buildings hovered around us hoping to meet Antonio. He didn’t ignore them but he was also courteous and professional around them. One of the women spilled her latte, and Villaraigosa beat a Starbucks worker in cleaning it up.

“He’s the sexiest man in Los Angeles,” one of the women told me later.

And he’d lost the election.

It reminded me of the first time I saw Antonio. It was in the 1970 on the UCLA campus, and he was a speaker at a Chicano protest rally at the university. His look was appropriate for the time: Long, wavy hair and mustache that made him look a lot like Geraldo Rivera.

“Who’s he?” I remember a striking blonde student asking.

“That’s Tony Villar,” someone told her.

She smiled and kept looking at him. She didn’t care about Chicano rights, the movement or the cause. She was focused on the messenger.

And that’s been Villaraigosahe added his ex-wife’s name to his when they marriedhis entire public life. He’s been a messenger and when the message hasn’t registered, he’s been smart enough to change it, the way populists have long done it, regardless of whether it’s the personal biographical narrative or a position on policy.

This is the politics Antonio has always understood and practicedand which few like to talk about. We like to envelop our politics in professional discourse about policy, polls, opinion and it’s-the-economy-stupid-BS. But the politics of charisma that has always defined Villaraigosa and that now so heavily sways America is more visceral. It’s about feel and touch. It’s about how a candidate looks and talks, dresses and walks.

Politics, of course, has always been about pressing the flesh, which traditionally has meant handshakes and kissing babies. But it’s also about seduction, not usually the I-want-to-have-your-baby-John-Edwards kind but more the red carpet seduction of celebrity.

Villaraigosa has never made any secret that he considers himself part of that world. He attends the Grammys, the Oscars and sits at court side with Jack Nicholson to watch the Lakersand he’s even drawn criticism and fines for accepting the freebies that many top celebrities are accorded. And then he was living with a former Miss USA whom he had turned into the First Lady of L.A. in the taxpayer-supported mayor’s mansiona relationship some thought would lead to marriage before it ended this year.

It likely pains the city’s political reporters to have to write about their mayor as if he were some pro athlete with trophy girlfriends and out-of-wedlock kids, but this is a different day with different rules. And, hey, if it’s OK for Tom Brady, how can it be bad for the rest of the world?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, American politics has already become the ultimate reality show.

That explains, too, the paradox with Villaraigosa: How he can be so disliked and criticized in Los Angeles but continue to be so popular and liked wherever he goes outside his hometown.

It is now the challenge that Villaraigosa faces as he prepares for the next chapter of his life.

“There’s a new wind blowing in Los Angeles and in America,” Villaraigosa has said on more than one occasion. “I can feel it all around me. It’s a new world, and I love living in it.”

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