The Democratic Party gave one of its best speaking slots at this week’s Democratic National Convention — the slot immediately before former President Bill Clinton’s — to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. That’s a sign that Villaraigosa’s career is on an upward trajectory despite his dismal record as mayor. The city of Los Angeles is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and is expected to run a $1.4 billion deficit over the next four years.
In addition to being a bad mayor, Villaraigosa has issues with his zipper. Already the father of two illegitimate children from his college years, Villaraigosa was busted by his wife in 1994 for philandering while she was struggling with thyroid cancer. The mainstream media has been slow to draw parallels between Villaraigosa and Newt Gingrich. In 2007, Villaraigosa was caught having yet another affair, this time with Telemundo news anchor Mirthala Salinas, who covered his administration.
Despite the scandals (or maybe because of them), the mayor is said to have “impeccable progressive credentials.”
Villaraigosa is a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he landed after being expelled from Catholic schools for fighting. He then latched onto an Upward Bound program and attended East Los Angeles College, where Chicano studies has its own department but history and African-American studies are tucked away in the school of social sciences.
He then transferred to UCLA, where he received a very progressive indoctrination into U.S. history while pursuing a BA in the field. One of his teachers there was likely Juan Gomez-Quinones, who taught history and Chicano studies. Gomez-Quinones got much of his academic esteem for being a founder of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), which calls for Chicanos to rise up and take back California and most of the West, creating a new Marxist-Leninist state within Mexico.
Villaraigosa was no academic star at UCLA, but he was a rock star in radical politics, delivering fiery speeches as a MEChA campus leader. The highlight of Villaraigosa’s college career came with MEChA’s takeover and vandalizing of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Center. Another MEChA member, Arturo Chavez, said of Villaraigosa, “He was one of the guys that would go out there and start the slogans because he was the loudest one. He was one of the people who would make sure people were riled up.”
Years later, when a few brave radio talk show hosts dared to bring up his days as a MEChA activist during an interview, Villaraigosa clammed up, calling the question inflammatory.
After graduating, Villaraigosa studied law at the suitably progressive but unaccredited People’s College of Law, but gave up becoming a lawyer after four failed attempts at the bar exam. Instead, he became a union organizer and president of the ACLU’s Southern California office, the perfect credentials for a successful run for the California Assembly, representing East Los Angeles. He became speaker of the Assembly in 1998 and left office in 2000 due to term limits.
When he returned to Los Angeles and became mayor, his appointments read like a Who’s Who of progressive politics: community organizer and former UCLA professor Larry Frank as deputy mayor; Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney and USC adjunct professor Thomas Saenz as legal and policy adviser; UCLA grad and gay and lesbian activist Torie Osborn as special adviser; and environmental activist and affordable housing advocate Cecilia Estolano as head of the Community Development Agency.
The radical magazine Dissident gushingly described the appointments, saying, “Villaraigosa signaled his political loyalties by appointing some of L.A.’s most effective activists to key positions in the mayor’s office, as department heads, and as members of powerful boards and commissions.”
Perhaps the DNC didn’t fully vet Villaraigosa before awarding him such a high-visibility spot at their convention. More troubling, perhaps they did.
Laer Pearce is a veteran of three decades of California public affairs. This piece is excerpted from his book “Crazifornia: Tales from the Tarnished State,” available through on-line retailers later this month.