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.
But Villaraigosa soured on unions not so that he can confront them but so that he can blame them for his failures. After years of dire and deteriorating city finances, he still allows government employee unions to carry out their tactic of ensuring that any slowdown in the rate of spending increases will be immediately visible to voters in the form of cuts to services. Does Villaraigosa believe voters will respond to office-hour reductions and crossing-guard-free intersections by demanding new taxes? His formerly reform-minded city manager is now calling for taxes on real estate sales, entertainment, petroleum extraction, and parking lot revenues.
How did the Democrats choose their leadership so poorly? Simply put, Villaraigosa fit the suit. His rise in the California party coincided with a power shift from the ancient Burton machine in San Francisco to a more shadowy labor/activist power structure in Southern California that was associated with former Assembly speaker Fabian Núñez (D-Vernon). In 2008, Núñez' son and three accomplices killed a college student while trying to crash a fraternity party (the son's manslaughter sentence was later commuted by outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), but Núñez may yet return to California politics. His successor in the speaker's post, pro-tax community activist Karen Bass, shot directly to the District of Columbia as the congresswoman for the 33rd district.
Current Speaker John Pérez (D-Vernon), like Núñez and Villaraigosa, was a union official before getting into politics. Pérez is an incompetent legislative leader, and sometimes his incompetence has good results: A bill he muscled through the legislature in a backstairs attempt to save California's redevelopment agencies was later ruled unconstitutional, and those predatory agencies were dissolved. But mostly the results are bad. Californians have endured many cycles of unbalanced budgets and missed revenue projections. No reforms have been made to the government employee pension systems that are bankrupting large and small towns around the state.
The Democrats feel entitled to a Latin star, but throughout the Sunbelt the Republicans seem to be the ones nurturing sensations like Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. This is where the party's need met Villaraigosa's vaulting ambition.
To give him an important job, the Democrats had to ignore all tests of outcomes. The LA Weekly's Patrick Range McDonald in 2008 closely examined Villaraigosa's work schedule to see how much time he was spending on city business, and the resulting "11 percent mayor" moniker stuck. Even The New Yorker, a magazine produced and read almost entirely within the liberal Democrat consensus, had sent a warning in the form of Connie Bruck's 2007 hit piece.
Now Villaraigosa's bone-deep untrustworthiness, his emotional neediness, and most importantly his severe intellectual limits have been displayed for the United States. Even if there were to be a second Obama administration, he'd be a long shot for a major appointment given his poor administrative record. Villaraigosa, whose last term as mayor will end next year, may still hope for a solid third act in Sacramento, but his record of failure is extensive and Californians are not in a forgiving mood.
Two of the Democrats vying to replace Villaraigosa as mayor next year were also in Charlotte last week. City Controller Wendy Greuel has performed actual public service over the past three years by continuing the aggressive public auditing work of her predecessor Laura Chick, putting light on phantom jobs, missing records and other abuses of taxpayer money. But Walter Moore points out that during seven years sitting on the City Council, when she could have made a difference, Greuel did little to reform the structurally unsound city government.
Also cruising the DNC was mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, the former L.A. City Council president who spent his time in Charlotte signing official-looking papers, getting his picture taken, and giving time to reporters. Neither Greuel, a San Fernando Valley native, nor Garcetti, the son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti, can mimic Villaraigosa's populist nightclub act.
But the toffish, cerebral Garcetti does reproduce Villaraigosa's indifference to pothole-level leadership. I lived in flat Hollywood, the heart of Garcetti's district, for six years. Garcetti is a Facebook friend of mine. Yet in all that time I only saw him at L.A. Times editorial board meetings and at big media events in other parts of town. In my neighborhood (which is considered distressed for the purpose of Targeted Employment Area subsidies) I saw more of Xavier Becerra, my local congressman, and even Tom LaBonge, a councilman from a neighboring district, than I ever saw of Garcetti. And Hollywood is full of potholes.
L.A. politics under term limits has a Putinesque quality, in which the same players rotate in and out of jobs in what looks to voters like a pattern of remission and inflammation. Over the years, many of the Democrats described above have traded legislative seats, appointed sinecures and elective managerial offices.
It's a poor breeding ground for national politicians, and that puts the national Democratic Party in a bind. With Wisconsin, New Jersey and even Massachusetts generating high-profile Republicans, California is the closest thing to a heartland the Democrats have left. Yet both the state's senators and many of its House members are antiques, and its rising generation holds little promise. There's just not a lot to choose from. The grimmest news about Villaraigosa's national debut may not be that it failed but that it was long overdue.