The Mayor and His Mistress

Mirthala Salinas on the affair that rocked L.A.

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IN HER LIVING ROOM, which is just big enough for  two people, stands a coffee table. On the table are six lighted candles, some scented with grapefruit, some with coffee cake. Arranged next to them are a silver tea set and a vase of red and white roses. Andrea Bocelli is singing a Mexican love song on the stereo. Near the tea set is a Valentine red volume titled Love’s Book of Answers, which counsels: “Kiss now, talk later.… Indulge your appetites.… Don’t keep any  secrets.” The advice didn’t help.

“What can I say?” Mirthala Salinas asks, smiling. “I’m a romantic.”

Salinas, scorned in headlines last summer as the mayor’s “other woman,” settles into her plush brown couch. Her English is touched with a slight Spanish accent. So much has changed, she says, that the woman in those headlines could be another person. “I think people will always judge me. They have the right to do that,” she says. “I respect that.” Her hand rises to her neck, to a silver pendant that contains her mother’s ashes. She cannot help but relate her six-month affair with Antonio Villaraigosa to her own vulnerability after the loss, a few months before, of her mother to cancer. It’s no justification, though, she says. “I don’t want to come across as ‘Oh, now she excuses herself.’” She reaches again for the dove-shaped pendant. “Because at the end of the day, maybe there were no excuses.

“If I hurt someone, it was never my intention. I apologize.”

ON THIS SUNNY AFTERNOON at her Studio City condominium, Mirthala Salinas, 35 and a year older and wiser, has agreed to speak for the first time about her present, her future, and—as much as she can without hurting anyone else—the scandal last year with Villaraigosa, who is 55. He was one of the most charismatic politicians in California. She was one of the most popular Latina journalists in Los Angeles. During their affair, Villaraigosa announced that he and his wife, Corina, were separating. “I had a tough summer. I got divorced. It wasn’t pretty,” the mayor told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in February, four months after his affair with Salinas ended. By then, though, his poll numbers were back up, and he was stumping for Hillary Clinton.

Mirthala Salinas is only beginning to recover. People call her the mayor’s mistress and a home wrecker. Her TV station, stung by her conflict of interest when she announced the breakup of the mayor’s marriage while they were secretly dating, reassigned her to reporting news from the desert towns east of Los Angeles. “It was a matter of dignity,” she says. “They wanted me to go to Riverside. I wasn’t going to Riverside.” So she resigned. She was off the air for four months before she finally landed a show on AM talk radio. Slowly, however, she is rebounding. A producer has approached her about hosting a series of TV specials, and she has reconciled with the boyfriend she was seeing before Villaraigosa. Unlike the mayor, he is someone you probably don’t know. Yanni Raz, a 32-year-old Israeli-born real estate agent, declined to be interviewed, except to confirm that he and Salinas are engaged and about to be married. She would like to have children soon.

THE FIRST TIME WE TALK, Salinas meets me at her doorstep. She is tall and slender. Her face is heart shaped and Disney pretty, with big brown eyes and a welcoming smile. She is in high heels, jeans, and a blue-and-brown top with an Empire waist and a neckline low enough to be a little sexy but high enough to be modest. She is friendly, earnest, and more innocent than I expected. “Come in,” she says. Her hand is delicate, with pale pink nails. It trembles. She wears pale lip gloss and a little mascara, which will run later when she cries.

Her tables are strewn with framed photographs of her brothers, sisters, and nieces. Her walls are hung with Asian art. By the fireplace are a hookah and a guitar. Her mantel holds a local television Emmy, small and golden. A large and well-tended philodendron winds around a stand next to her couch. She has two little white dogs, Jamel and Galleta. Their toys are piled neatly next to a wet bar near the stairs, which lead to her bedroom. A slight breeze blows in a window that opens to a patio filled with plants.

She offers fruit and cookies on the coffee table, with tea brewed from fresh mint.

Our conversation lasts for three and a half hours. Afterward, we talk again on the telephone, and once again for another two hours in the Toluca Lake office of the producer who wants her to host the TV specials. The office is hardly personal, but our talk grows more so. In both settings, she declines to answer many of my questions out of respect for Villaraigosa’s family. She wants to cause them no more pain. She knows, though, that she will be asked for interviews until she finally relents, and she wants to close this chapter of her life. “I’m starting new,” she says, “in every sense.…

“It’s something that happened in my life, and it’s part of my past. I’m starting all over again, personally and professionally.”

 

LIFE FOR MIRTHALA SALINAS began in Mexico. She was born in Tijuana and grew up in Hermosillo. Her father was a radio announcer who later opened a furniture business. His cousin, whom he promoted for a time, was the comedian and famed Norteño pioneer Eulalio “El Piporro” Gonzalez. From them she learned about broadcasting. It sealed her future. “I didn’t want to be a model, or whatever,” she says. “I wanted to do the news.”

Her parents divorced when she was 13. Four years later, she moved with her mother and younger brother to Tolleson, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, where an older sister lived. At 18, awaiting a work permit, Salinas knocked on doors at Spanish-language radio stations until one let her hang around. When her permit arrived, the station gave her a job. At 21, she moved to television and took a part-time reporter position in Phoenix. “I had a boyfriend,” she says. They talked about marriage. Indeed, the young man went to Hermosillo and asked her father for her hand. Finally, though, they didn’t marry. “We were too young.”

A news director in Phoenix took a chance and promoted Salinas to coanchor of the evening news, and in 1997, she left Arizona State University without graduating and moved to Los Angeles to become an anchor at KVEA-TV, Channel 52, owned by Telemundo. She was 25 years old. It wasn’t long before she met Antonio Villaraigosa. “The first time that I recall, he was speaker of the assembly,” she says, “and I interviewed him.”

What was her first impression of him? “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. To me it was just an interview.”

By 2001, she had become a reporter and weekend anchor at Channel 52. Two years later, she began dating Assemblyman Fabian Núñez, who would soon become speaker. Núñez, she says, “had been divorced for eight or ten years.” Their relationship posed no ethical conflict with her work, she says, because she was not a political reporter, never interviewed him, and did no stories about issues in which he was involved. She says she told her supervisors about the relationship. “It was never a big deal.”

She says that she and Núñez were serious. “I mean, we met families. But I think the timing…he was in Sacramento, I was here. He was busy, I was working weekends. It was just hard.” After six or eight months, she says, they broke up. Núñez eventually remarried his former wife. Before the breakup, however, Salinas became a friend of his good friend Villaraigosa. They socialized together. She introduced him to some of her relatives. They ran into each other at benefits and political functions.

What was he like?

Mirthala Salinas smiles fondly and takes a deep breath. “A happy person. A good-hearted person. Humble. Outgoing but cautious. Not shy, but he observes people. Like I can be outgoing, but I’m shy, and I think he’s more outgoing, but cautious. And, you know, I don’t blame him. In the world he’s in, it’s hard. He’s slow in getting to know you, but he’s a very positive person, very energetic person. He’s very—what’s the word? Positive? Like in his mind, there’s no room for negative thinking. Everything is good. Life is beautiful.”

Villaraigosa left the assembly in 2000. He ran for mayor of Los Angeles and lost—then was elected to the city council. In 2005, he campaigned again for mayor and won. Early that year, Salinas became a political reporter. That November, a woman who lived in her condo complex came upon the mayor in the lobby. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks and carrying bags of take-out food and a bottle of wine. The woman rode up with him in an elevator. She would later tell the Los Angeles Times that everyone who lived there, except Salinas, was older and Jewish—and “I knew he was not going to visit an elderly Jewish woman with wine and food.”

In fact, Salinas says, he was going to a potluck dinner she was hosting. “I don’t remember how I invited him, but I had this little get-together at my house, and he came. There were maybe eight or ten people there, including myself, and my neighbor saw it and made a big deal out of it.” She shrugs, then laughs. “But we were only friends.”

Potluck? With the mayor?

“I don’t care about people having titles,” she says. “I don’t. And I know people see it as, well, he is the mayor of L.A. And they have every right to think that. But there is a word in English. Star…starstrike? Starstruck? I don’t get like that. Sometimes people walk next to me, and they’re a huge artist, and I don’t know, because I’m not into that.”

She covered the mayor at City Hall and on trips to New York and Sacramento. She landed interviews with him—but not, she says, as any special favor; Villaraigosa talked constantly to reporters. Anonymous members of his staff, however, would tell the Times that they had been privately concerned about photos of Salinas and the mayor walking side by side at the state capitol—and that word of a “developing relationship” might spread.

Nonsense, she tells me. “I don’t know what they mean about a relationship developing.” She says she was still seeing her boyfriend, Raz, and would be for months.

Then in the late summer of 2006, her mother came to visit and fell ill. Salinas took her to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where tests showed she had pancreatic cancer. “They told me she had four to six weeks to live,” Salinas says, tears welling in her eyes and spilling down both cheeks. She took family leave. “I was in the hospital literally from 7 a.m. until midnight. I would go home to sleep and then go back to the hospital. In the last few weeks, I just didn’t come home at all.… I knew my mom was going to die any day. Any day could be the day. I would go to sleep every night thinking, ‘Maybe tomorrow.’”

People came to help, including Raz—and the mayor. “I told him, I think. He called, and [then] he came to visit my mom.” Villaraigosa helped the family communicate with doctors, first at Cedars and then at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We were friends, and once my mother got sick, I felt like I could really count on him.”

The doctors were wrong about four to six weeks. “My mom was in the hospital for four months,” Salinas says, “and [the mayor] was there.” Gradually, she says, “I got to know him in a more personal level.… And I liked what I saw.”

What did she see?

“The fact that he was a real human being, and he didn’t come to us as ‘the mayor.’ He came as a friend, just to be there. He always was like, ‘Do you guys need anything? Did you guys eat?’ Very, what’s the word? Very making sure we were OK. I know a lot of people do that when you’re in a crisis, but maybe because it was a different kind of relationship, not that close, that it was a side of him I didn’t see before.”

On January 4, 2007, her mother died. Salinas was distraught. Remembering her mother’s funeral still undoes her. Villaraigosa flew to Phoenix to attend the service—but, she says, only as a close friend. “I know there’s a lot of speculation,” she says, dabbing at her eyes with a paper napkin. “All I can tell you is he was very supportive. He’s an excellent human being, and he was there for me.”

When she returned to work, she told her supervisors at Channel 52 that she should not do any more reporting on the mayor because he had done so much for her family that she could no longer be objective about him. She and the TV station agreed that she would be reassigned to a beat that would not involve reporting on either the mayor or city politics.

She felt as if she were sleepwalking. “I had to learn to not have a mom.” She pauses. The tears well up again. “I just got myself into this shell, and it was just me. I was just working. I was just spending time with myself, going back to see my family when I could.… I was back to work full-time.” By now, both cheeks are wet, and she has given up trying to dry them. “I was mourning my mom,” she says, sobbing. “I think I still am.”

Even before the funeral, rumors were circulating at City Hall that Villaraigosa’s 20-year marriage to Corina, whose surname, Raigosa, he had combined with his own, was growing shaky. It wasn’t the first time. They had separated in 1994, after he’d had an affair. Now came reports that he and his wife were no longer appearing together and that he was not wearing his wedding ring. He denied to the Times that they were separated. Aides said he had lost weight and quit wearing the ring because it kept slipping off.

Salinas followed the coverage, but not avidly. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention, but I was in my own world.” She was not herself. She was grief stricken and reeling. The stress frayed her relationship with Raz. In February, she says, they broke up.

Two months later, she says, she started seeing her friend the mayor. Whatever either had previously felt, the intention now clearly was romance. When I ask about it, she becomes visibly guarded. She turns away question after question, saying she wants, above all, to be considerate. “I think it was gradual,” she finally offers. “It wasn’t ‘Oh! I’m in love!’ It was gradual. I think that’s how love is. I don’t think love is just, ‘I see someone, I’m in love.’ I think it’s a gradual feeling.”

HE SEEMED so caring, so constant, she says. Her friends were shocked but said she’d be crazy not to give it a chance.

“I felt special. OK, putting the whole world aside, the media scrutiny, the people hurt, I felt special. It was a beautiful feeling. My feelings were being…reciprocal? Reciprocated? Is that the word? It’s beautiful when you have that, and putting everything else aside, I was happy. And when you’re happy, you want to eat the world.”

The world, though, should not find out. “I think deep inside we knew it was going to be a scandal,” she says. “Deep inside we knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.… We just didn’t talk about it. I was being private. I told a few friends. They were happy for me, but they were a little bit worried about what the outcome could be.” 

On June 8, Villaraigosa announced that he and Corina were separating.

At Channel 52, Salinas was substituting for an anchor on maternity leave. The mayor’s announcement would mean sitting in front of TV cameras and reading the news about her lover’s separation from his wife. Because of a legal settlement she reached with Telemundo when she eventually left KVEA, she says she cannot say why she did not simply refuse. “There was no way I could get out of it,” she says, still uncomfortable with the memory. “I was shaking. I didn’t want to be there.…

“It felt like something in my stomach, like a ball in my stomach, like a hole in my stomach…something here.” She touches her abdomen. “I put myself like it wasn’t me, like it was another person doing what I was doing. I pretended I wasn’t reading it. At that moment, it was like it wasn’t me sitting at the news desk, doing the newscast.… It was something I wish I would not have done.”

At a news conference three days later, Villaraigosa said the breakup of his marriage gave him “a personal sense of failure.” He asked everyone to respect his privacy. The next day, Corina filed for divorce.

Almost immediately blog chatter speculated that TV anchor Mirthala Salinas was the reason. On July 3, the Daily News wrote about their affair, and Villaraigosa conceded at a news conference: “I have a relationship with Ms. Salinas, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”

That afternoon Salinas issued a statement: “I first got to know the mayor at a professional level, where we went on to become friends. The current relationship grew out of our existing friendship.” She acknowledged that both she and the mayor were public figures, but she added, “I hope that everyone can understand and respect my desire to maintain my privacy when it comes to personal relationships.”

There was neither understanding nor respect. Bloggers said she was pregnant.

“I never was,” she says. “I don’t know where they got that from.… [My sister] heard that on the news in Phoenix, and she called and said, ‘Are you pregnant?’ And I said, ‘Of course I’m not pregnant.’ It hurt because I knew my family was hurting.… I wasn’t prepared emotionally for becoming so public overnight, and even without my mother’s death, I don’t think I would have been prepared because I don’t like to be in the limelight.”

But wasn’t she in the limelight for a living?

“Yes,” she says, laughing. “But I’m very shy when it comes to my personal life.”

At first Telemundo defended her. But media critics slammed KVEA for letting her announce the breakup of the mayor’s marriage after she had recused herself from covering him because of their friendship. Now, the critics said, the station appeared to be turning a blind eye while she slept with a news source. Telemundo placed Salinas on leave. Eventually it would suspend her for two months without pay for violating its rules on conflict of interest and discipline three of her superiors for letting it happen.

In the Times, Steve Lopez wrote a column asking, “Who needs telenovelas when you have Los Angeles City Hall?” He wondered whether Fabian Núñez, state senator Alex Padilla, and Antonio Villaraigosa were “playing a game of ¿Quién Es Más Macho?” Lopez called the scandal L.A.’s “summer of love.”

Alex Padilla? Where, Salinas wondered, had that name come from? She says—and a Padilla aide confirms—that she and Padilla had never done anything more than attend a couple of public events as friends. Indeed, almost comically old-fashioned, Salinas says she has been in love fewer than a half dozen times in her adult life.

At her condo complex, reporters trooped past the swimming pool, stood on her doormat, and pounded on her door. The doormat said LEAVE. She had bought it as a novelty, but now the joke wasn’t funny. “I’d be in my bedroom watching TV, trying not to know they were knocking,” she says. Her dogs grew hoarse from barking. “I couldn’t leave my house. They would sit at the front door for hours, one reporter in the front, and the other in the back. I wasn’t going to come out and be rude, and I wasn’t going to come out and give them what they wanted.”

The mayor would call with concern. “He’d say, ‘I’m sorry you can’t leave.’

“I had my friends come and [look] for weird people with notebooks and cameras.” She laughs at the thought. “I had some [reporters] try to go in my garage door. [My friends] said, ‘Why didn’t you call the police?’ I could have done that, but I didn’t. I just let them knock on the door. I thought eventually they would get tired.” She pauses for a beat. “It took them a long time to get tired. Months.”

In a word, she says, it was horrible. “I understand the media, because I am part of the media, and I understand that they have to do their job. On the other hand, I consider myself a private person.… I felt how, I guess, people feel when we come to their house and ask them, ‘How do you feel about’—I don’t know—‘your son dying?’ It’s such a personal thing. As journalists, there’s a very fine line, and many times we do cross it. I’m not condemning anyone. I’m not criticizing our profession, but I do think we do that way too often. I’ve always felt this. Even in our newsroom, I would complain, ‘Why do we have to do this?’”

Finally she went to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico to visit family. Like so many on the other side of the headlines, she ducked out.

DESPITE EVERYTHING, she says she was happy.

“I trusted him, and I know he trusted me.” They didn’t talk about marriage, she says. But “he was so protective of me once the relationship became public, I know he loved me.”

When they went out, she says, “most of the time, people were very nice to me.… We went once to a Greek festival, like a street fair. This Armenian lady comes to me and says, ‘Are you the reporter?’

“And I said, ‘Yes.’

“She said, ‘I just wanted to tell you’— and I thought she was going to be rude to me—she said, ‘I just want to tell you not to worry what people think. You go, girl!’”

Salinas laughs.

Once, though, she says, Villaraigosa took her to a restaurant in West L.A. She cannot remember its name, but she recalls clearly what happened. “We walked in together, and there was a table, two couples, older people. And they said, ‘Mr. Mayor!’

“He said to me, ‘Don’t walk away—stop with me.’

“He introduced me. And I said, ‘Hi,’ and I put my hand out to say hello. And the guy said, ‘Hello,’ and the one lady said, ‘Hello.’ And the other lady didn’t say anything. So I say, ‘Hello,’ again, and I leave my hand out, and she doesn’t say hello. So I say, ‘Hello,’ again, and finally she eventually said, ‘Hello.’ It was rude, but she had her own reasons, I guess. It didn’t happen a lot, but it came with the territory.” So did the bloggers. On August 10, one of them posted pictures of her SUV outside Getty House, the mayor’s mansion. The same day, a video spy for the Web site TMZ caught her and the mayor buying shoes at Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks.

On September 24, LA Observed, another blog, said the Telemundo staff was told that if Salinas stayed at KVEA, she would be assigned to the Inland Empire. She says that she and Villaraigosa had known that their affair would have an impact on her career. “I guess I didn’t know it was going to have such a big impact. Maybe it’s romantic, but it was more just that we were going to be there for each other.… We did talk about it. I know he was sorry. He is a very sensitive person. Some people don’t read him that way, but he is.…

“Just as there was, maybe deep inside me, some guilt for hurting people, I’m sure he felt the same for hurting my career,” she says. “But he didn’t hurt my career himself. We both did, and I take responsibility.”

On October 1, Salinas quit Telemundo. She had been at KVEA for ten years.

Still, the media were relentless. “I remember one day in October [when] I was watching TV. All of a sudden it’s like 9 p.m. and I hear a knock on my door, and I look out the peephole and see a huge light.”

It was a TV camera.

“Everybody loves to be loved, right? I think everybody likes to feel in love. And I think love is the most beautiful thing that a human being can have.… But then it got so crazy, it got to the point where it was just too overwhelming.”

IN OCTOBER, Mirthala Salinas’s affair with Antonio Villaraigosa came to an end.

“I think it just got to the point where we both realized that it wasn’t working out as that kind of a relationship,” she says. “I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if it was being on everybody’s mouth, under the scrutiny of everybody. When I talk to my friends, they think that’s what it was.”

There were 19½ years between them. Wasn’t that a big age difference?

“Yeah, but I don’t think that was it. It was better just as a friendship.”

On October 18, Salinas was hospitalized with pneumonia, partly the result of stress, she says. Reporters spotted her old boyfriend, Yanni Raz, at the hospital with her.

Her relationship with the mayor had gone back to being just friends.

She is reluctant to say much more.

“I try to be positive all the time, so I see it as a learning experience that I might never finish evaluating…just because of everything that it cost. All the people hurt, the people still hurting…it’s something I’d rather not talk about, because it’s something that happened, and it was never my intention that things were going to happen that way. That’s why I’m so hesitant.”

She will not talk about the mayor’s family or his children. “I just want to be respectful,” she says. Is she sorry the relationship ever happened?

“I regret hurting people. I do. But I think we should learn from every experience. That’s what makes us better human beings.… And I’m taking the best out of this relationship to go on.”

Her new show on W Radio (690 AM) is part of that, she says. “I started my career many years ago, and I started on my own. I think I can do it again.” Another part is her recent philanthropic interest: to honor her mother by getting involved somehow in the fight against cancer.

Then there is her new life with Raz. She is taking Hebrew lessons, the better to communicate with her prospective in-laws. Her Valentine red Love’s Book of Answers does not say anything about Hebrew lessons. It doesn’t have to.

“One day I was in the car with Yanni,” she says, “and I felt such relief, such caring. No people around me, no having to smile when I don’t feel like smiling. I can’t explain it. It was a very fulfilling feeling. Like I was a normal person again.”

Photograph by Jill Greenberg

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