After eight years as America's celebrity mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa says he has mixed feelings about leaving.
"I do think for a mayor of a big city, or a governor or president, two terms is enough," Villaraigosa said in his third floor City Hall office where aides are beginning to pack up the papers and memorabilia of his time in public service.
"But I am leaving here with a smile on my face. I am incredibly grateful to have had this job. No matter what else happens to me, I can always say I was mayor of Los Angeles."
It has not always been easy for the 60-year-old Villaraigosa, who was subject to increasingly critical scrutiny, much of it deemed unfair by supporters.
"When you are mayor of Los Angeles, a city where the entertainment industry is so strong, a mayor has to be an advocate for film and music, the creative industry," Villaraigosa said. "Just as the mayor of New York has to be an advocate for Wall Street."
His drive to promote the entertainment industry stirred criticism that he sought the spotlight too often and attended too many free events, including the Oscars and Emmy awards and Lakers and Dodgers games. His divorce and subsequent involvement with TV reporters only fueled the criticism.
"Mayors, wherever they are, get hit," Villaraigosa said. "That's why it's hard for them to go on to other (political) jobs. Particularly, mayors of big cities rarely move up to jobs like governor."
Ever since his election in 2005 when speculation about other political aspirations would surface, Villaraigosa would repeatedly say he had no plans to leave his job as mayor.
"I said I would serve a full eight years and I have," Villaraigosa said. "Early on, there was talk about me running for governor, but if anyone had looked at my schedule, they would have seen that was not the case. I made only two trips to San Francisco and no others around the state. That's not a campaign for governor."
Last week, he sparked new speculation about his future plans when he said in an interview with Larry Mantle on KPCC that he wants to run for governor -- some day.
"In fact, I fully expect I will," Villaraigosa said.
But, Villaraigosa said he has no timeline and would not run against Gov. Jerry Brown.
He also has talked about writing a book on the state of modern politics or of working for a university or a think tank.
"There is no rush," Villaraigosa said, who leaves office on July 1. "I'm going to take my time to decide."
He is looking for a new residence -- his ex-wife has their Mount Washington home -- and he has been living at Getty House, the city's mayoral residence. His most likely relocation spot is the Venice area because of its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport, he said. When he retires, Villaraigosa will be eligible for an annual pension of $122,489.
Cites many successes
Villaraigosa said the political speculation regarding his future has minimized his administration's accomplishments in public safety, transportation, the environment, education, pension reform and city services -- all during the nation's worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
One of the his most significant accomplishments was passage of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax approved by more than two-thirds of the voters in the county to fund transportation projects just as the recession was being felt.
"That was not an easy thing to even get on the ballot," Villaraigosa said. "We had a lot of opposition on the MTA board and from the other cities who didn't want to sign on."
Villaraigosa was able to use the concept of leveraging the $30 billion to be raised from the tax into his 30-10 plan to get federal loans against the money to be raised. That later became the America Fast Forward national plan where localities agreeing to tax themselves were able to get the federal government to advance them money.
Most of his tenure was marked by the economic problems confronting the nation.
"If you would have said to me: 'Mayor, are you prepared to furlough, lay off or reduce the workforce by one third?' I would have said, 'Are you crazy?' Yet, I led the effort to cut the numbers of workers.
"People were saying we would have to declare bankruptcy and I said, not on my watch. And we didn't."
To mark his time as mayor, his staff put together a 60-page book, titled "Straight from the Heart of L.A." that details his accomplishments over the past eight years.
Among the accomplishments: 20 percent of energy coming from renewable sources; 75 percent increase in recycling; adding 669 acres of open space; installing LED streetlights; reducing port emissions; adding 1,549 miles of bikeways; reducing violent crime by 50 percent; and reducing gang crime by 43 percent while expanding the LAPD to 10,000 officers.
Despite his many accomplishments, even longtime supporters said it was the right time for him to move on.
"To me, he was the best mayor since Tom Bradley, but that isn't saying a whole lot," said Jaime Regalado, former director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State, L.A. "What we had in between was mediocrity. Dick Riordan couldn't get along with the City Council and Jim Hahn was busy fighting secession. Hahn did get rid of Bernard Parks as police chief and did bring in (Bill) Bratton, which was absolutely the right thing to do.
"The problem for Villaraigosa was the economy."
Villaraigosa kept Bratton in charge for a time, and oversaw the expansion of the Los Angeles Police Department to 10,000 officers, a move that dramatically reduced crime.
"I thought he did a good job on transportation but he got bogged down with the schools," Regalado said. "He wanted to be like (New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg or (Chicago Mayor Rahm) Emanuel, but he couldn't get control of the schools."
Villaraigosa said he tried to take over the schools, winning passage of a state law that was later overturned by the courts.
Like Riordan, Villaraigosa changed his tactics from trying to take control to helping seat a new Los Angeles Unified Board of Education that agreed with his views on educational reform. He also took direct control of 22 poorly performing schools, which he said have turned around.
Also, his added focus on graduating students helped the district reverse its drop out rate, he said.
"In 2005, there were only 48 percent of kids graduating," Villaraigosa said. "Last year, it was 64 percent. Almost two-thirds of the students."
More critical of Villaraigosa's eight years is Joel Kotkin, professor of urban development and a fellow at Chapman University in Orange.
"You show me what has improved," Kotkin said. "L.A.'s unemployment is the highest in the county and state. Does anyone think Los Angeles is in a stronger position now than it was 10 years ago?
"I travel all over the country and what I see is cities like Austin and New Orleans, and I can see L.A.'s diminishing footprint. At one time, this city was leading the way for all other cities."
Kotkin does credit Villaraigosa with convincing Bratton to remain as chief of police, but questions the value of the transportation program being developed or the cost of environmental gains.
"They are looking to spend all this money on solar when we have natural gas that will be less expensive," Kotkin said. "We are building a subway system that is marginally effective and takes a huge public investment."
He also faults the mayor and other city leaders for failing to prepare for the economic downturn.
"There are circumstances beyond what a mayor can do," Kotkin acknowledged. "But, neither he nor other leaders recognized at the start just how bad the situation was."
Richard Close, founder of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and an early Villaraigosa supporter, said the economy doomed the administration.
"He is a man of great promise, but had limited results," Close said. "He did try to improve transit, but we have more gridlocked streets than ever before. He did a small amount of pension reform, but we still see a drop in city services.
"The economy gave him only limited resources and he had more ideas than results. As you look at cities across the country, they are innovating, using more technology. What we get are more left-turn lanes and LED lights."
Whatever his legacy may be, Villaraigosa said he is ready to move on, and he believes he was right to defer on efforts to change the law that would have allowed him to serve a third.
"Six years ago, I had an opportunity to extend term limits for this job and I decided not to," Villaraigosa said. "I believe two terms is about right. Mayors do their best work in two terms and then it's time to move on." ___