Op-Ed

Newton: It's legacy time for Villaraigosa

The mayor has long shown the ability to think big. Now he has two years left to improve Los Angeles.

First of two parts | Part two

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa doesn't like to talk about his legacy. He's still moving forward, plowing through the work that is left for him to accomplish with two years remaining. Like it or not, though, this is what faces the mayor: He has the time and opportunity to make a significant mark on the history of his city, or he could squander his final months and go down as a failure.

To succeed, Villaraigosa needs to start by shoring up the city's finances. He inherited crippling pension obligations and a budget deficit that is built into the city's way of doing business. But if he's to leave the city better than he found it, Villaraigosa will need to lead on pension and healthcare reform.

That's just the foundation. Success also requires that he stay the course on police hiring, maintaining an LAPD of roughly 10,000 officers and insisting on a bedrock commitment to constitutional policing. He needs to get more out of the partnership schools he helps oversee — their recent test scores suggest that they are not keeping pace even with the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District. He should use his clout in Sacramento to address the flaws with the California Environmental Quality Act that make it both an inhibitor to growth and an unreliable protector of the environment. And he has to deliver on his farsighted vision for the region's transportation and environmental infrastructure, extending subway lines and creating the foundation for transit-oriented housing development.

Villaraigosa has the energy, ability and position to make all that happen.

Or Villaraigosa could dabble in each of those areas, falling a bit short everywhere. He's shown himself to be capable of that too.

Over the course of several hours of interviews in recent weeks, Villaraigosa acknowledged that he's in the home stretch of an important run.

"These are going to be tough years," he said last week in the second of our interviews, this one in a sitting room of Getty House. "I have to be operating as if this is the end of the line. It might not be, but I have to act as if it is."

He is well positioned. Villaraigosa is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, giving him a national platform. He is chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, from which he can direct local transportation funding. And he has a new and much-anticipated chief of staff, Gaye Williams. Williams, a veteran of Mayor Richard Riordan's administration, replaces Jeff Carr, who enjoyed an initial bounce when he was named in 2009 but soon lost the confidence of Villaraigosa's senior staff and struggled to impose a direction on the administration. Williams already has impressed people at City Hall with her forceful command of the administration's priorities.

In the end, though, Villaraigosa will succeed or fail based on his own leadership, on his ability to marshal his formidable gifts of persuasion and check his least helpful impulses: his impatience and tendency to flit from one issue to another without remaining focused for long enough to have an effect.

This is not the mayoralty that Villaraigosa imagined when he ran — either in 2001, when he lost, or in 2005, when he ousted incumbent Jim Hahn. The campaigns were boisterous, promise-filled and biting; they were predicated on the idea that Los Angeles was growing and that the next mayor would be a builder.

For a time, he was. Villaraigosa inherited an annual city budget of $5.9 billion from Hahn and grew it to $7.1 billion within three years. Then the national economy collapsed, and ever since, Villaraigosa — the former union organizer — has been on a job-reduction march. The city budget has been whittled to $6.7 billion this year and the general fund workforce reduced by 4,000 positions, including 473 employees who were laid off (the rest were transferred or offered buyouts, a humane but costly approach). The mayor also is willing, though the City Council is reticent, to start jettisoning certain functions of the city — the zoo, for instance, and the Convention Center. Those things, and more, will be necessary to right the city.

More important, Villaraigosa has begun, belatedly, to confront the daunting difficulties of city retirement and health benefits. Voters this year approved the creation of a new tier for public safety employees that will offer lower benefits, and the city is negotiating with its unions for a similar reform on the civilian side. Those are helpful, but not much: They apply only to new hires, and the city's not doing much hiring. Small innovations in healthcare also offer a pittance in savings but only underscore the need for the city to go much, much further.

Toward the end of our interviews, Villaraigosa summarized his challenge: "Pension reform, CEQA reform, education reform and governmental efficiency."

That's spot on, and it's a reminder that Villaraigosa has long demonstrated the capacity to think big. "We're going to remake this city," he told me with pride. His job now is to prove it.

jim.newton@latimes.com

On Tuesday: It's been 10 years since Villaraigosa first ran for mayor. Has he changed?

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