L.A.’s Villaraigosa Leaves Office Popular, Accomplished—And Patting His Own Back

The city's first Hispanic mayor in modern times made progress on transportation, energy and public safety during a debilitating economic downturn. What will he do next?

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his office in Los Angeles, on June 19, 2013.

On a recent day at Los Angeles City Hall, outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handed out copies of a colorful, glossy book titled, “Straight from the Heart of L.A.: The Villaraigosa Years.” The 62-page magazine prepared by his staff details a wide range of achievements, from a decrease in violent crime and coal power to an expansion of public rail and green space. “Do you promise to read that?” the mayor asked. “You’ll get the full flavor.” Modesty has never been Villaraigosa’s strong suit.

In the days before the twice-elected, term-limited mayor leaves office on June 30 to be replaced by former city council member Eric Garcetti, Villaraigosa is on a mission to secure his legacy. Last week, he headlined an event to showcase progress on a $4.1 billion modernization of LAX, even though the upgrade isn’t finished. The airport announced plans to name a pavilion after him. And earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton, “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest and singer Stevie Wonder paid tribute to the mayor’s eight-year tenure at a celebration downtown.

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Villaraigosa’s record isn’t all flourish. During an interview for this story, he raised an electric window curtain in his office to proudly point at an empty lot he was turning into a park across the street, a testament to his significant progress in making L.A. more green. And despite the media’s love of portraying him as a partier–a photo of Villaraigosa with Charlie Sheen at the opening of the actor’s rooftop bar received much coverage–the mayor has scored important achievements in transportation, energy and public safety during the nation’s worst economic downturn since the 1930s. L.A. residents have rewarded him for these victories. An April poll found that more than half the city approves of his performance.

Villaraigosa, the city’s first Hispanic mayor since 1872 has remained popular despite his city’s tepid economy. Throughout the recession, Los Angeles had one of the highest unemployment rates among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, averaging 11.8% in 2010. And its pace of recovery is lagging: while U.S. employment in December 2012 was 2.4% below its peak pre-recession level, L.A.’s was 6.1% below that mark, according to the UCLA Anderson Forecast.

The city’s chronically troubled school system has also cast a pall over Villaraigosa’s terms. Although he’s quick to advertise L.A.’s improving graduation rates and academic performance, his unsuccessful bid to take control of the school district stands out as a major failure. Only 65% of students in the district graduated in 2011, compared with an average of 76% statewide. And only half of the student body met the objective for English-language proficiency that year, well below the target of 78%. “The number one reason for the high unemployment rate is the number of people who don’t have a high school or college education,” Villaraigosa says, echoing the opinion of many economists.

Some of L.A.’s problems have roots that predate Villaraigosa’s tenure. Non-farm payrolls increased 23% nationwide and 16% in California between 1990 and 2012, but the city’s payroll employment actually fell by 7% over that period, according to the UCLA Anderson Forecast. Los Angeles has been hurt by regional trends such as the shrinking of Southern California’s once-gigantic aerospace industry, where the number of jobs fell to 51,100 in 2012 from 161,300 in 1990, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

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But that doesn’t mean the mayor’s office is helpless. L.A. needs to diversify its economy by attracting more investment from sectors such as high tech, says Ernest Wilson, professor of political science and dean of the Annenberg School for Journalism at USC. Google’s decision to open offices in Venice has some calling the area “Silicon Beach,” but L.A. needs more investment than that to be on par with the real Silicon Valley. “If we do it right, we’ll have as much investment opportunity as Northern California,” Wilson says. “If we don’t, there’s a dystopian story. Unemployment will increase. Infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.”

To his credit, Villaraigosa has made a down payment on improving the city’s outlook. In a city where the automobile has long been king, bright green bike lanes now mark downtown streets, large bicycle-riding events shut down boulevards on some Sundays and an expanded rail network gives residents more options to take the subway.  A new line through South L.A. to LAX was just approved this week. Business and night-life in Downtown and Hollywood are resurgent. Villaraigosa drove utilities to shift from coal power to solar and wind, and crime fell to its lowest level in nearly 60 years, according to the mayor’s office.

But the city still suffers from budget problems, partly fueled by lower tax revenue in the sour economy. Heavy cuts to city services frustrate residents with broken sidewalks and untrimmed trees. Those who brave the Westside portion of the 405 freeway at virtually any daylight hour understand why L.A. is still the nation’s most congested metropolis, according to INRIX’s traffic scorecard. And an abundance of potholes has L.A. drivers spending too much money at auto repair shops.

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As Villaraigosa departs and Garcetti takes over, the national economic recovery may ease some of L.A.’s most nagging problems. But joblessness remains its biggest challenge. Put simply by UCLA economist William Yu, “the economy is the major issue for the new mayor.”

While the spotlight now shifts to Garcetti, Villaraigosa will likely miss the public stage too much to take his final bow. He says he plans to work with a think tank or university and with the private sector, then run for governor. “I want to reflect on how to restore the luster of the California dream,” he says.

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