What L.A.'s mayor faces in his in-box

Antonio Villaraigosa brings charisma and history to job, but faces crime, traffic, and education woes.

When Antonio Villaraigosa is formally sworn in Friday as the 41st mayor of Los Angeles, he will bring some unusual skills and political momentum to the job.

As the first Hispanic mayor here since 1872, he has generated a lot of excitement and expectation that he will be able to help unite one of the most diverse cities in the world. Mr. Villaraigosa is also considered to be charismatic and a coalition-builder - both attributes that could help him move the city forward.

Yet none of this is to say his tenure will be smooth as a roller bearing. Los Angeles, because of its weak mayor system, may be one of the most difficult big cities in America to govern.

Moreover, it faces a host of problems that mirror many of those in other urban areas but may be more pronounced here: a lack of affordable housing, gridlock on the freeways, a persistent mistrust of police, a troubled school system, a growing underclass.

How well he does in managing these problems may well determine if he has a political life after his tenure at City Hall - something many think he is clearly interested in. "He's taking on one of the toughest jobs in the country," says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist. To be successful as "the mayor of L.A., people have to see improvement."

For now, Villaraigosa is wasting no time tackling items in his in-box. Immediately after his definitive victory over Mayor James Hahn last month, he called for the city to take over the ailing public school system. He has suggested making himself chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He has also proposed expanding the city's police department to continue to force crime numbers down.

To a limited extent, Villaraigosa has already proven that he can be a problem solver. He recently helped resolve a tense ethnic standoff at a local high school and brokered an agreement in a hotel labor dispute.

"As [L.A.'s] first modern-day Latino mayor, generally people would like to see him do well," says Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It uniquely situates him to address these very large problems."

Still, some believe it will take far more than a persuasive personality and inspiring personal life story - he grew up the son of a poor Mexican immigrant - to solve some of the city's chronic problems.

Critics worry, for one, about his lack of executive experience. As a former member of the state Assembly, he may be ill-prepared to run a major city. Yet his time in the state legislature could prove beneficial in another way: helping to bring state aid and other benefits to Los Angeles.

"That's probably the biggest asset he brings to the office of mayor - his ability to work with other offices in Sacramento," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

He will inevitably have to balance his larger political ambitions with minding his own backyard. Indeed, David Ayón, a senior research analyst at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, says Villaraigosa, like other mayors before him, is being advised by two different schools of thought.

Some warn him not to be distracted by the national stage, while others feel that leverage is crucial to being an effective L.A. mayor. "This is a tug of war for Antonio's soul," says Mr. Ayón.

Another challenge will be showing concrete improvement. That is particularly difficult when it comes to perceptions of public safety, for example, since it require keeping crime rate numbers low. In attempting to take over the ailing school system, says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California, he runs the risk of not delivering.

Beyond initiatives and proposals, some say the biggest indicator of how he might perform is his own drive. "I think he sees political success as part of the story of his personal redemption," says Ayón.

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