Villaraigosa always wanted L.A. to be about him - and it wasn't

Vvilla2.jog.jpgAs the mayor's undistinguished two terms in office draws to a close, I'm struck by the number of commentators (several of whom I know and respect) choosing to let bygones be bygones - to give the guy a pass, more or less, in spite of inept management, minimal accomplishment, and a frat boy persona. One writer described the mayor's performance as "good" but not "great." Another said he was sorry to see Villaraigosa go, calling him "interesting" and "pretty damn entertaining." In some ways, I can appreciate the lighter touch. The outgoing mayor, after all, is yesterday's news (it's hard to see how he becomes competitive in a race for governor or any higher office). Yet, we are talking about eight crucial years in the life of a great city. Attention must be paid. Antonio Villaraigosa came to City Hall with a "shoot for the fences" mentality and leaves with way too many whiffs. More than that, he leaves having wasted a lot of valuable time.

Ultimately, the mayor could never match his own ambitions with L.A.'s complicated realities. He started out in 2005 with an overreaching agenda, then mostly ignored the fast-approaching financial meltdown (although so did the Council), then insisted that the city's fiscal house was in order, then figured out that it wasn't, then initiated willy-nilly budget cuts and funding transfers that left city government a hollowed-out mess, then bungled efforts at full-scale restructuring, and then, in the midst of a fractured recovery, insisted that L.A. was back in full-growth mode, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

But never mind all that. Antonio Villraigosa's biggest failing is that he always assumed it would be about him. His final months in office were especially ignominious - did he really need to take a last-minute trip to China or appropriate a city festival as his own farewell party or make sure that an unfinished portion of an LAX terminal named after him would be unveiled before he left office? During a raft of exit interviews, he insincerely pooh-poohed any thoughts about legacy even though it's no doubt been his primary life focus. When he couldn't get control of the schools, he switched gears to transportation. When his L.A. spotlight wasn't quite bright enough, he sought the national stage by becoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And all the time there was the travel, the partying, the fine dining, the front-row seats - little of which had the least relevance to fixing a struggling city. No wonder the Obama people made it clear that he wouldn't be considered for a Cabinet post - about the last thing they needed was a middleweight wannabee with an outsized ego.

Forget the nonsense about how we should be able to accept the personal flaws of our elected officials. Leadership at any level is about judgment and integrity, and you can't finesse your way around that. Crazy as it might sound, there are 60-year-old people in this world who manage to work hard, accomplish a great deal, and still steer clear of attractive TV reporters. When they party, it's usually right after their children's soccer game. Villaraigosa never figured that one out - his well-chronicled meanderings always struck me as sad, and posing with Charlie Sheen in that infamous photo down in Mexico was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen from a politician (kids would call such gallivanting "gross"). And for all the Hollywood hobnobbing, he always seemed slightly uncomfortable when it actually came time to speaking in public. A little too stiff and thoroughly incapable of impromptu riffs. Could use ever imagine him doing, say, Slow Jam the News?

Several weeks ago, the Weekly ran a not-so-flattering piece about the state of the mayor's finances and what he might do after leaving office. The story included a wonderful-but-unattributed anecdote about how he buttonholed Bill O'Reilly at an Oscar party and asked for his help in getting a job at Fox. I found the piece pretty interesting; others thought it frothy. Either way it was a talker, and so it shouldn't have come as a surprise when reporters brought it up at a press event. A gifted politician could have had fun with the speculation - maybe joked around about learning to drive or shopping for pots and pans in his new life. Not Villaraigosa. Beyond the smiles you could tell that he was both pissed and befuddled. He claimed that the story had few facts (untrue) and that Angelenos had little interest in his personal life (c'mon, that's all they care about when it comes to him). After pushing back a reporter's question ("I'm surprised that an outfit like yours would continue on that"), he tried changing the subject and then finally insisted that he has no worries about his future. All right, so it's just four minutes out of eight years in office, but they're telling ones.

So what about that legacy he was so fixated on? Well, L.A. has a long history of disreputable characters who held the office of mayor, and Villaraigosa is certainly not on that list of scoundrels. He can claim a modest number of accomplishments (reviving LAX, bolstering environmental policy, promoting trade and tourism), though on too many issues he either sidestepped or took the wrong course altogether. But what's conspired against him most of all - more than the economy, more than politics - was a breathtaking lack of humility. Someone should have told him it was all right to acknowledge his foibles, to laugh at himself once in a while. People like humility - it shows that you have a healthy view of life, a maturity. It shows that you can be a mensch. Instead, he always made it Antonio against the world - and guess who won?

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent City Hall stories:
Garcettis are moving to Getty House in January
Council members at large (photo)
Greuel and others pitch Clinton for president (video)
Exit interview with Port of L.A.'s executive director
Garcetti on changing city hall culture

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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