Crunch time for L.A.'s Villaraigosa

Midway through his term, Mayor Villaraigosa struggles to fulfill campaign pledges, rebuild public approval.

On the playground of Breed Street Elementary School near downtown, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stares into the sunlight and a small gathering of press.

"This vote is an opportunity for teachers and parents to support real reform at our public school campuses," he says. He asks parents and teachers to elect to join the "Partnership for L.A. Schools," a school-reform plan he has championed since the courts nixed his more overt quest for greater mayoral control last summer. By the next morning the votes are tallied, and six schools have opted in.

That scene on Tuesday supplied a telling snapshot of Mayor Villaraigosa at just past the midpoint in his first term at the helm of America's second-largest city, say political analysts. It shows an articulate, ubiquitous, and upbeat politician still chipping away – if slowly – on a host of campaign promises: education reform, gang suppression, water conservation, and traffic abatement among them. It also shows a man who sees that getting it done is harder than it looks.

Elected in May 2005, Villaraigosa has amassed an enviable record in some arenas, notably crime-fighting, smog abatement, and renewable-energy initiatives. But he has slipped in public favor for failure to deliver in others. Those include sufficient school reform (this week's vote among a small group of schools notwithstanding), water conservation, gang suppression, and, to some degree, police reform. The mayor has been criticized by some for not taking a more active role in the current Hollywood writers' strike and for not advocating strongly enough for a local bus riders' union.

Revelations in July of an extramarital affair haven't helped either. His name has been moved from first to fourth in rankings of prospective California gubernatorial candidates for 2010 by the California Majority Report, an influential Sacramento-based political blog. Coming on the heels of a high-profile police melee in May and the loss to Chicago of a petition to host the 2016 Olympic games, the revelations helped sink his approval rating from above 70 to below 50 in July and August, according to his own pollster.

"It has been a very tough period personally and politically," says Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg. "The mayor decided to work his way through by keeping his head up, staying visible and focused on day-to-day problems." The tactic has worked to some extent, say Mr. Clegg and others, with the mayor's approval rating now inching into the lower 60s.

"It's too early to write the mayor off, but he clearly has been wounded by the personal revelations and his failure to take over the schools," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Tuesday's vote in favor of Villaraigosa's plan affects only 18,000 to 30,000 of the Los Angeles Unified School District's 700,000-plus students, he and others note.

"He needs to show results: schools getting better, the gang problem easing, transportation looking better," says Mr. Stern.

Villaraigosa supporters hasten to add that additional schools could adopt the reform idea, in which control of participating campuses shifts from the Los Angeles Unified School District to a nonprofit organization committed to improving student achievement.

"By voting to join the partnership, parents and teachers said 'yes' to lower dropout rates, higher student achievement, and safer campuses," Villaraigosa said after the vote.

Villaraigosa's limited achievements, say other observers, are partly due to Los Angeles's weak-mayor system and fragmented power-sharing with county and state governments. Other big-city mayors who have improved schools have mayor-appointed school boards. Los Angeles still has a 15-district City Council-centric government and quasi-independent commissions.

Los Angeles voters "want better schools, but most mayors have little say over education. Poverty and joblessness are huge urban problems, but social policy is largely under control of state and federal agencies," says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Villaraigosa has to grapple with a problem that most [previous L.A. mayors] faced: the gap between what voters want and what mayors can deliver."

That said, even Villaraigosa's detractors acknowledge that the mayor is a tireless, focused worker who attacks problems head on. "Energizer bunny" is how many describe him. And he has every chance of winning back voters in time for the 2009 mayoral election, many observers say, as well as the 2010 California gubernatorial election. There is also the prospect that if a Democrat wins the White House, he could be tapped for a cabinet post.

Villaraigosa is already known in Washington. He secured $4.5 billion in federal funds (a 29 percent increase) for L.A. transit, and is one of six national chairs for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential election campaign.

But back in Los Angeles, say experts, the mayor needs to become known for more than articulating appealing visions. It's crunch time.

"The bloom is off and the hard reality of the job is upon him," says Allan Hoffenbloom, a Los Angeles-based political analyst. "He is going through a phase of knowledge that the job takes more than publicity and charisma, and that if he doesn't deliver he is not likely to become the next governor of California."

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