Los Angeles: The Resurrection of Antonio Villaraigosa

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arrives at Los Angeles city hall on Feb. 7, 2012

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He points out that in 2008 he was able to persuade voters to approve Measure R, which committed $40 billion for major transportation improvements, many of which are now being completed and noticed by the public. The halfpenny sales tax has allowed Los Angeles to double the size of its rail network. The newly emboldened mayor is now trying to push his innovative transportation public-works plan on Congress. He also touts lower crime (a national trend); a more diversified police force; more housing for the homeless; a cleaner, lower-emissions port (though that may be a side effect of the economic slowdown); and large-scale construction projects, including major work at the airport, as some of his accomplishments. "I do have a sense of urgency of finishing what we started," he admits. "I'm dogged and persistent, man."

He is eager to show off his administration's impact on the city. Of an upcoming transportation meeting, he half-jokes: "Let's get out there — to the airport, to the port, to the new MTA lines — and show you what we are doing. I'll meet you there! I'll drive!"

Asked about the future, Villaraigosa says he isn't looking for another job. For the moment, he will run his city and play his supporting role in the Democratic Party. Depending on what Governor Jerry Brown decides, he might run for governor someday. If Obama wins and Villaraigosa helps him get re-elected, it might earn him an administrative position. After years of public service, he could go into the private sector. But Villaraigosa seems most comfortable and natural when he is out helping and talking to those struggling to make it in Los Angeles.

One balmy February afternoon, the mayor was moving about the city. There are thousands of car washes in Los Angeles, and there is a small effort by labor organizations to improve the working conditions for the employees there, who are usually immigrants. Villaraigosa's staff didn't really want him to waste his time attending the small rally on the issue in South Los Angeles, but when he heard that workers reportedly weren't getting lunch breaks or access to water and were shortchanged on salary, he said, "It violates my notion of decency and fairness. That's a no-brainer for me. I'm with you!" It was kind of a ragtag gathering, but the mayor showed up.

Car-wash worker Manuel Martinez, who had gone up to address the crowd at the podium, suddenly appeared to be moved by the fact that it was the mayor himself who was standing next to him. Martinez started to get a little teary. Villaraigosa, the kid from gang-infested Boyle Heights, gave him a comforting smile and told the crowd, "None of us should ever forget where we come from."

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