Dear Mr. Mayor

So much promise, so much disappointment. An open letter to Antonio Villaraigosa

Your second term at City Hall doesn’t even begin until next month, but we know you’re already plotting to leave us—at least if you think you’ve got a fair shot at grabbing the gubernatorial crown off that Austrian bodybuilder in 2010. It took a good while, but we realize now that your career has been less about fulfilling commitments than about seizing opportunities and satisfying ever-larger appetites at the expense of those who put faith in you. Your estranged wife, the politicians who stood behind you and took a haircut for their trouble, the voters who believed you could love this city more than you love yourself—we can tell the same story of betrayal.

Why, you may ask, are we so bitter? It’s a fair question. We weren’t as harsh when your predecessor, James Hahn, ran our city like a midlevel bureaucrat. It was no great revelation when Hahn preoccupied himself with bean counting, and only mildly surprising when his best accounting practices became tarnished by petty corruption. In his campaign speeches Hahn had given us little to aspire to, and so he could hardly disappoint. Then again Hahn made the courageous but suicidal political move of ending Bernard Parks’s tenure as police chief in favor of William Bratton, which so outraged South L.A. that when you ran against Hahn in 2005, that former constituency of his was all yours.

We are bitter because you promised us so much. You were not only our first Latino mayor in 137 years but arguably the most charismatic leader in memory to step onto L.A.’s bland political stage. You had charm, poise, and vigor, and you spoke in cadences that reconciled reason and compassion.

Your life story alone was cause for celebration. Here was no high-powered man of business who traced his father’s footsteps, like Richard Riordan, or scion of a beloved county supervisor, like James Hahn. As a boy, you endured Eastside poverty and a drunken, violent father who abandoned the family. Dropping out of high school, you sank into hurt and hostility. A tattoo on your arm warned that you were “born to raise hell.” In your rise from those beginnings to the mayor’s office, you bulldozed long-held prejudices about what any of us could or deserved to achieve. You spanned the city’s divides of race, class, and geography. You owed your mayoral victory as much to the home owners of Encino and the African American congregations of Crenshaw as to the laborers of Boyle Heights and the Prius drivers of Westwood. Under your reign, our city might cohere.

What an agenda you rolled out for us. Your progressive platform, if enacted, would cleanse the city of its toxins: street crime and failing schools, the evaporation of affordable housing and the carcinogens in our skies. You made your share of election-year boasts—a thousand new cops! a million new trees!—but we understood these to be ornaments hung upon a grand civic vision.

You didn’t exactly settle into City Hall. Instead, you kept on barnstorming. We watched you plant the first of all those promised trees and fill in potholes and leaflet motorists on Wilshire Boulevard. We were sure to hear about it when you stumped for Hillary Clinton or scaled the Great Wall of China. You tossed out new programs as if you were still a candidate, most of them paper-thin, without any strategy for implementation or credible source of funding. You said you were a “big-picture guy,” too busy touting lofty plans around the city and the world to bother with details. Rather than adapt your regime to compensate for your lack of organizational concern, you commandeered it for self-promotion.

Yes, crime has dipped under your stewardship, and it looks as if we will be getting those thousand cops. You negotiated a living-wage ordinance that has lifted the lot of hotel workers near LAX and helped the city secure billions in bond money for the “Subway to the Sea.” But these successes can’t mask the essential truth: What you now lead is an administration in which politics almost always trumps policy—where solvable problems become impossible to fix. This past winter we discovered that you couldn’t stop city employees from gulping down almost $184,000 in bottled water three years after a city controller’s audit caused you to institute a Sparkletts ban. You vowed to make L.A. a no-kill zone for abandoned cats and dogs. By the end of 2006, the euthanasia rate at city shelters was 41 percent, not even 2 percent less than the previous year; your animal services director recently resigned after suspending the city’s free spay-neuter program. A fraction of your million trees may have been acquired, but how many have perished in their pots or in parched ground after being handed out to practically any passerby during community events? At our libraries, staff and book purchases have been cut back. There have been no great civic works to mark your tenure—no public art or municipal architectural feat to instill pride. The zoo remains a joke. The only perceptible change at our national embarrassment of an airport is the scaffolding that has enveloped its space-age Theme Building for the last two years.

As for that personal life of yours, it is hardly up to us whom you should fool around with. But did you really have to choose a Telemundo news anchor whose job was to go on the air and report that your marriage was over? Loath to explain the whole mess, your online city hall bio, as it appeared this spring, made no mention that you were ever married or that you have kids. After the scandal you all but vanished, depriving the city of the one asset you’d consistently been able to deliver—your public face.

Let’s remove ourselves from the spectacle you’ve made of your private business and look at what should have been three triumphs of your mayoralty: education, the environment, and affordable housing.

Of all your first-term foggy notions, your attempted takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District stands as the most quixotic. While your desire to help the city’s children was no doubt genuine, the initiative itself was born of reckless political one-upmanship. During your spring 2005 runoff against Hahn, pollsters found that what voters wanted most was for the mayor to fix our miserable school system, even though the City Charter and the state constitution prevent anything of the kind. When Hahn showed up at a local school demanding that he be allowed to appoint at least three LAUSD board members, your campaign dismissed it as a gimmick. Two days later you appeared at the same school and raised the ante, saying you would seize control of the entire system, replacing the elected seven-member board with candidates of your choosing. For the first 22 months of your administration, you burned the bulk of your political capital waging a war against the LAUSD. When the state legislature passed your education bill, it was so watered down that it gave you little more than veto power in selecting the superintendent and direct control of only a handful of schools. A superior court judge declared even that version unconstitutional, and an appeals court affirmed the obvious. Our schools are still a shambles.

As a candidate you promised us the “cleanest and greenest big city in America.” We already mentioned the trees. The solar power initiative you championed was savaged for its lack of specifics. But we know that had voters not rejected it last spring, it would have been a windfall for the electrical workers union, whose leaders virtually put it on the ballot. Among the region’s most entrenched health hazards are our ports, whose trucks, trains, ships, and loading equipment belch out enough pollution to cause 1,800 premature deaths a year, by one conservative estimate. You did support a clean trucks bill, which, if it survives a court fight, could rid the area of the dirtiest diesel haulers. But which side were you on when state senator Alan Lowenthal introduced a ports bill that would have done far more, taxing every container and reaping as much as $400 million annually to lessen traffic and pollution? Just as the bill was nearing a crucial moment in the state assembly, your spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that it was unacceptable because it didn’t include money to repair two bridges you wanted fixed. You added your voice to a chorus of detractors that included Wal-Mart, Burger King, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Only when money for the bridges was found elsewhere did you endorse the ports bill—tepidly. You may have called on the governor to sign it, and you may have encouraged some legislators to pass it, but the one time we heard you speak out was when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin urged Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto it, which he promptly did. A nice opportunity for some national exposure, to reinsert yourself into the presidential race after placing all your bets on Hillary.

The year you took office, L.A. was in the midst of one of the greatest real estate booms in its history, and units for the lower middle class and working poor were disappearing as buildings in once-undesirable neighborhoods became condos or were leveled to make way for luxury apartments. In 2008, the Los Angeles Business Council determined that L.A. was the least affordable metropolitan area in America. During the runoff against Hahn, when you were still serving on the city council, your colleagues Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti were pushing for an inclusionary zoning ordinance, much like Chicago’s, that would have required developers to commit 10 percent of a project’s value toward funding affordable housing. Their proposal never made it to the floor after you and then-councilman Martin Ludlow made it clear that this was perhaps not the best time to be alienating the business sector.

You said Hahn’s affordable housing trust fund was inadequate, and for the first half of your administration, you did cobble together enough city, state, and federal dollars to double the annual allotment to $100 million. This coming fiscal year you’ll be 20 percent shy of that figure, with the city’s proposed contribution reduced to zero. Today’s outlook might have been less grim if the city council’s $1 billion affordable housing bond hadn’t lost last year by a couple of percentage points at the polls. The measure hardly benefited from mayoral support so anemic that some regarded it as mild opposition. By the time you introduced your own housing plan last September, mostly paid for by billions in diverted and purely imaginary funds, the bottom had fallen out of the market.

Mr. Mayor, the city you have sworn to lead is in crisis. It is time you put a stop to the betrayals and fecklessness that have marked these past four years, time you resist the urge to bound up the career ladder faster than even term limits compel you. You’re an old pro at campaigning by now, but you must finally decide whether you want to govern. Call a press conference and tell us in language that contains no loopholes that you’ll stay with us until the end of your term. Do what more you can for schools, housing, jobs, and the environment, but enough with the bragging. If you want to leave your stamp on this city, and not a mere smudge, concentrate on one—just one—ambitious initiative to make Los Angeles a more tolerable place than when you took power. Should it be traffic? The zoo? The airport? OK, what about gangs?

We’re still the gang capital of the world, with 40,000 members causing havoc. In 2006, gangs were responsible for more than half the city’s murders. Crime rates have gone down, though try telling that to the elementary school students in Highland Park who practice diving under their desks in anticipation of live rounds, the way children in the ’50s prepared for atomic bombs. By middle school, as much as 90 percent of the students in L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods will have been exposed to violence, with more than a quarter of them suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

You’ve already come up with something that, if you can get serious about it, could make a difference. In January 2007, civil rights attorney Connie Rice recommended an overarching strategy intended to eliminate as many root causes of gangs as possible, and that summer city controller Laura Chick launched an audit that showed L.A.’s anti-gang efforts in disarray. Instead of responding with a hasty memo, you introduced a gang reduction and youth development plan articulating a vision both focused and audacious. Your administration identified 12 hot zones where the mayhem is at its worst. Within them you proposed to reach everyone from preschoolers threatened by shootouts to adolescents pressured to join neighborhood crews to bangers seeking a way out. You shut down the bumbling Riordan-era L.A. Bridges program and appointed a capable gang czar, Jeff Carr. Typical of your administration, he has the mandate but not the resources to coordinate the anti-gang efforts of the LAPD, the sheriff’s department, neighborhood councils, the city housing department, parks and recreation, public schools and colleges, the county department of child and family services, the city’s cultural affairs office, and the state department of corrections.

The local news has barely concerned itself with your anti-gang program, preoccupied as it is by Octo-mom and the tanking economy. You can bring the cameras to the scenes of devastation and demand they stay there beyond the usual eight-second recap of the latest killing, because you’re not about to leave, either. Your anti-gang crusade will take more funding than you’ve devoted so far, more commitment to persuade unions and city, county, and state agencies to accept such a sweeping strategy, and almost all the moral leadership you have left. Should you succeed, you will have introduced to the rest of America a blueprint for radically shrinking perhaps the most intractable problem of our civic life.

Politically, here is a chance to redeem yourself. Give it your all, and maybe you’ll emerge from your tenure at City Hall looking more like Barack Obama than Sammy Glick. Even if you fall short and accomplish not a fifth of what you set out to do, at least you’ll have saved lives. We’ll be able to shed some of our cynicism and disappointment, and when the next governor’s race comes along, you’ll be able to run on a record. For the sake of the city, remind us that you once stood for something more than the political advancement of Antonio Villaraigosa, and that there is some residual greatness about you yet.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

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