Rule number one in politics: don’t make the headlines of TMZ.
Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has broken this cardinal rule three times in the last week. TMZ, the celebrity gossip site, has actually bestowed the title of Mayor Suave upon Villaraigosa.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Harvey Levin and the TMZ crew and right next to my POLITICO and RealClearPolitics phone app is my TMZ app. But this is not where I should be going to read about my national leaders and this isn’t the first time Villaraigosa has been fodder for TMZ.
This TMZ episode speaks to a larger question about what the mayor’s legacy will be. Will it simply be that of a common Latino stereotype of the suave Latin lover? Or does Mayor Villaraigosa leave office this year with a legacy—a lasting political accomplishment akin to Mayor Giuliani’s cleaning up New York’s Times Square or Richard M. Daley making Chicago a global city?
The short answer is neither. However this does not mean that he did not accomplish good things for America’s second largest city. During his eight years in office, he has overseen an improved police department in a city infamous for problems with its police force. He has also streamlined the city’s bureaucracy by making it more accessible to the business sector while at the same time better connecting city agencies with the citizenry.
On the education front, the mayor seems to have made some headway through his Partnership for LA Schools program. Perhaps one of his most visible accomplishments is the true revitalization of downtown. One of his most polemical accomplishments has been in transportation and the added taxes that come with it. In a city defined by its car culture the Mayor, as part of larger Green initiatives, has expanded metro rail and bus lines and succeeded in gaining local and federal funding for the “subway” to the sea-line.
For as many accomplishments there are just as many or more, depending on who you ask, failures under the Mayor’s watch. But I’m always cautious to assign direct responsibility whether good or bad to any mayor given the institutional constraints from being on the receiving end of federal and state political and economic constraints. Moreover, any position with term limits such as L.A.’s mayor puts a time handicap on elected officials.
The legacy of Antonio Villaraigosa however, will be beyond that of Los Angeles. He emerged as a national figure during a time that the Latino political voice was maturing. While he is not the first Latino mayor – there’s Henry Cisneros of San Antonio, Manny Diaz of Miami, and dozens of others—he came up at the time that Latinos nationwide and in L.A. in particular were becoming a formidable political force. Add to this a powerful personality that can out-charm the charmers, motivate and disarm.
His larger than life persona, as observed by a trusted L.A. Latino political insider, is both his greatest strength and weakness. It has lent to unrealistic expectations that he is “the one,” the leader to carry the Latino community on his shoulders.
Antonio Villaraigosa is a good leader – regardless of whether you’re Latino, black or white. He’s got flaws, but then again, who doesn’t? My advice to him in the short-term is to get a better PR staff and a bully of a handler. And this is a big one, especially if he sets his sights on Diane Feinstein’s Senate seat or the governorship, two positions that should never end up making news on TMZ.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.