Movement Mayor: Can Antonio Villaraigosa Change Los Angeles?

Movement Mayor: Can Antonio Villaraigosa Change Los Angeles?

On a Saturday afternoon in March, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stood with others leading a march of more than five hundred thousand people protesting anti-immigrant legislation making its way through Congress. It was the largest demonstration in L.A. history. Few people were surprised to see Villaraigosa on the front lines. But some progressive activists were upset when, a few days later, after almost forty thousand high school students staged an immigrant rights walkout and some blocked traffic on major freeways, Villaraigosa urged them to return to class. The mayor met privately with student leaders, then addressed a rally outside City Hall. He later explained, “Somebody’s got to be a grown-up,” an ironic comment given that Villaraigosa had himself participated in the historic Chicano high school student walkout in 1968.

For Villaraigosa, being a “grown-up” means effectively balancing his progressive views with his role as mayor governing a complex city full of economic and cultural crosscurrents. As he says, “I’m an unabashed progressive, but I’m not a knee-jerk.”

Villaraigosa was elected mayor in May 2005, unseating the incumbent James Hahn, a moderate Democrat, by a 59 percent to 41 percent landslide. Instantly, the new mayor’s face was everywhere, on the cover of Newsweek, on the network news stations. The “bold” and “charismatic” mayor was profiled on National Public Radio and in nearly every major newspaper in the country. The stories focused on his prominence as a Latino mayor in the country’s second largest city. They also highlighted his early years—as the son of an abusive father, a rebellious teenager, a high school dropout (before returning to get his diploma, then graduating from UCLA)—and described his growth as a progressive activist and elected official. They portrayed his ascent—as Villaraigosa often does himself—as an updated version of the American dream.

Villaraigosa speaks frequently of “hope” and “opportunity.” He embraces patriotism in every speech and admonishes immigrant activists to carry the American flag at protest rallies. He emphasizes the positive role that government can play in improving people’s lives, but he also promotes the importance of both personal responsibility and grassroots organizing.

His triumph was a victory for L.A.’s progressive movement, which since the 1992 civil unrest has forged an increasingly powerful political coalition of unions, community organizations, environmental groups, religious institutions, and ethnic civic groups. For example, the city has adopted a living-wage law, an ordinance that effectively stops low-wage, big-box stores like Wal-Mart from setting up shop; an anti-sweatshop policy; and a municipal housing trust fund.

In 1973, Los Angeles was the first major U.S. city with a white majority to elect an African American mayor—Tom Bradley, who served for twenty years. This...