During one of his many appearances before the cameras at this year's Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke movingly about the mother of "indomitable spirit" who, according to his narrative, raised him after his father, an abusive alcoholic, abandoned five-year-old Tony Villar and the rest of the family, took up with a new woman and gave his first son by the new woman the identical name Tony Villar.
Villaraigosa has been retelling variants of this family history for many years. Tragically, he didn't wait until his father was dead before telling it. As Tony Castro reports in a profile of L.A.'s lame duck chief executive, several of the main characters have challenged the accuracy of Villaraigosa's Dickensian tale:
Villaraigosa’s father, Antonio Ramon Villar Sr., finally spoke up for himself in a 2006 interview in which he adamantly challenged the mayor’s allegations.
“God knows that I was never an alcoholic and that I never hurt his mother or abused my family,” Villar Sr. told me, denying the mayor’s long-accepted account of his purported difficult childhood.
“I know the public has been poisoned against me, but this is the truth, so help me God.”
Villaraigosa’s claim that his father later gave another son the exact same name he had given him also is inaccurate.
That other son—christened Anthony Gustavo Villar, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz – has personally contacted Villaraigosa demanding to know why he has publicly vilified their father, said Estela Villar, Anthony Gustavo’s mother and the wife of Antonio Ramon Villar Sr.
Villar Sr.’s second family portrayed him as a husband and father who has been gentle, loving, kind and deeply religious—and who in half a century of marriage never abused his wife or their four children, nor shown any hints of alcoholism.
Even without embellishments, Villaraigosa's hard-luck story remains compelling – and rare among major American politicians. Unfortunately, accounts of youthful privation had already dominated the speakers' setlists at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, creating a special irony for the feckless L.A. mayor. Villaraigosa was one of a vanishingly few people inside Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena who could truthfully claim the Hamiltonian tradition of low birth, but nobody wanted to hear it.
That wasn't the worst. Villaraigosa's on-camera disaster came when he overrode an obviously split floor voice vote with the unbelievable claim that a supermajority had voted in favor of the God/Jerusalem change to the party platform that President Obama favored.
Correct procedure called for an exact vote count, and Villaraigosa appeared torn between his instinct for ward-boss strongarming and his longing to appear statesmanlike. Judge for yourself whether the nearly 60-year-old Villaraigosa in this clip does or does not look like a little boy overwhelmed by the complexities of a man's job:
That the L.A. mayor's national coming-out would fail should have been known in advance. He didn't just come from humble beginnings. He's made of humble stuff. At the DNC, when he trumpeted the early assistance he got from an affirmative action program, Villaraigosa didn't mention that he went on to fail the California bar exam four times. This might not matter if he had bloomed in later life, but he did not.
Since Antonio Villaraigosa settled into the Windsor Square mayoral residence in 2005 (he later had to depart while divorcing the long-suffering Corina Raigosa), L.A.'s unemployment rate has soared. Its gross domestic product has dropped by double-digit percentages. World-famous retail streets like Melrose Ave. and Wilshire Blvd. are studded by "For Lease" signs and speckled with homeless people. The city's budget has not been balanced for four years. In his 2009 re-election race, Villaraigosa got a small majority even though he was running virtually unopposed and outspent his nearest competitor (politically unaffiliated gadfly Walter Moore) fifteen to one.
Villaraigosa's good moves in office have been no-brainers like re-appointing Police Chief William Bratton and denouncing the L.A. teachers union in a 2010 speech. Observers have been eager to praise his evolution from shakedown man to steward of the commonweal.