The New Yorker's Profiling of Antonio Villaraigosa

05/21/2007 09:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To the editor:

The quotes attributed to me about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in your May 21 piece are accurate enough, but then there's the critical matter of context. Connie Bruck completely omitted my praise for the mayor as one of the best progressive politicians I have seen in many decades, apparently because she disagreed with my perspective. When I relayed this complaint to your fact-checker, Michael Peed, he called Ms. Bruck and assured me that the context would be restored. But it wasn't, and that's unprofessional and unethical.

Former state senator, California

I thought I was done with journalistic profilers when I left public office nearly seven years ago. I can't even remember the last time I held a press conference, since I no longer need to let the voters know of my existence. Nor do I need to serve up quotes that fit neatly into stories that someone already has prepared. My guard is down. I am de-toxing from living in the media. Now I simply blog away and work on books. But when my friend Connie Bruck called a few months ago to discuss Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I said yes, thinking it was an important subject and that she would be, as they say, fair and balanced.

As to the Mayor's modus operandi, I told Bruck that I thought he was the finest power politician I had seen in many years, that he was capable of amazing multi-tasking, that he was a progressive Latino pathbreaker and civil rights leader who might actually go "all the way." My sense was that she didn't agree with this assessment at all, but she promised to acknowledge my positive assessment in anything she wrote. Then she wanted to hear some criticism.

I told her the story was much bigger than a character analysis, but was about Latinos finally breaking down the walls of political segregation and coming to power in Los Angeles, the crucible of multicultural issues in America. But character was a factor, and I said that Antonio was terrifically competitive and aggressive, which accounted for his rapid rise to power as Speaker and Mayor. But the same strengths were also potential weaknesses, since many people could be left with bruises along the way. Personal ambitions and successful coalitions are often hard to manage.

In a few lengthy conversations, I tried to discuss Antonio's context more than his personality, a subject rarely broached in personality profiles, but essential in understanding the future of Los Angeles.

First, I told her, Antonio is hoping to bring into his orbit certain African-American civil rights leaders who might build bridges to black voters and serve as reform cushions in the event of a police brutality incident. Second, he wanted to retain as chief the high-profile William Bratton, whose mission would be to reform the LAPD and succeed in lifting the embarrassing federal consent decree imposed after the Rampart scandal. Bratton got off to a rough start with some inflammatory remarks about bringing a war-on-terror approach to the gangs of LA, but he soon generated a comforting image of the man in charge of gradually improving public safety and the image of the LAPD.

But as I predicted and as Bruck's rewritten article shows, that was a fantasy. The highly-trained and paramilitary LAPD Metro Unit rampaged against protestors and reporters in MacArthur Park on May 1, forcing the Mayor to rush back from the trip to Latin America. The notion that Bratton, who is absent from Los Angeles about 130 days per year, somehow had a reformed police department under full control, is a shattered illusion. The Mayor will be forced into the middle of the endless history of police reform debates in LA, having to choose between his ACLU past and his law-and-order present. But this is a structural crisis beyond any personal qualities he brings to the table. The LAPD has never surrendered its autonomy to civilian rule. The LAPD still defines its central role as "suppression" rather than mere "enforcement." Elements of the LAPD act like right-wing posses with impunity under a code of silence.

Moreover, the implicit mission of the LAPD is to crack down on the homeless and the gangs in order to accommodate private investment downtown and the gentrification of neighborhoods. As in US foreign policy, suppression of the "undesirables" is considered necessary as the precursor to development, which usually means the poor and working poor are developed right out of their neighborhoods, whether Boyle Heights, Pico Union, Venice/Oakwood, or historic Watts. Under Villaraigosa, downtown construction and development will reach new heights, which means that the poor will be facing new lows in a city with the greatest wealth-gap of any in the United States.

It was the fate of former Mayor Tom Bradley that downtown development never created sufficient trickle-down to inner city neighborhoods to prevent the storm of violence in 1992 which followed the first wave in 1965. The promise to "rebuild LA"- the beginning of the privatization of urban renewal with goals of 70,000 new jobs in five years, all created by private corporate investors - was a disaster which should have been taken seriously by the crowd of neo-liberal globalizers that gave us NAFTA and the WTO. But they were blind to the facts spelled out even by Warren Beatty and Halle Berry in Bulworth that since corporate de-industrialization was the cause of rising unemployment, poverty and gangs, voluntary corporate reinvestment wasn't even imaginable as the solution. The truth is that instead of rebuilding LA with tens of thousands of inner-city jobs, South LA experienced the flight of 50,000 net jobs in the decade after 1992. The looting of LA was corporate and institutional in nature, not simply the spontaneous supermarket appropriations which millions saw on television in 1992.

This is the underlying cause of the immigrant rights controversy that is played out daily in MacArthur Park in the heart of the LAPD Rampart Division, as described in the wonderful novel The Tattooed Soldier by the Times' correspondent Hector Tobar. These dynamics more than any other created the critical mass that propelled a Latino constituency from relative oblivion to a position of power for the present and future. The economic and immigration challenge before Antonio is much different than the days of the Great Society when Tom Bradley first came to the City Council.

The LA school system is crumbling while also evolving into an 80 percent Latino one and at the same time being rapidly restructured and partly privatized through charters. The forces behind this epic shift are not unlike the corporate developers who promised to "rebuild LA" without success in 1992. One hopes [with sketchy evidence] that they know the limits of the corporate model applied to public education where the inner city dropout rates are greater than forty percent.

It's not Antonio's fault that there is no grand consensus around which to build a governing coalition and political majority. My feeling is that such a plan will develop from "below" rather than from conventional think tanks. Until then, I believe Antonio will try to improvise and reduce the contradictions between his varied constituencies. He must and will make his mark on Latino politics in the Americas. He will try to protect immigrant workers. But can he make a difference on dropout rates by his school takeover? On unemployment rates by his alliance with the city's unions? On police brutality and gang violence reduction with the current LAPD?

It's not a personality thing. Antonio has the capacity to process the cross-currents and initiate programs. What's missing in urban politics is any notion of successful economic development for the middle class, working class and urban poor in a time when private capital is migrating to the white suburbs and distant markets abroad. What's missing is a realization that we can't squander billions in Baghdad that could be directed to public service employment or health care in our cities. When our intellectuals, policy advocates and Democratic Party elites develop a more unified vision of urban America to complement their apparent quest for empire or their chase for swing voters in the suburbs and small towns, Antonio will be among the leaders they turn to for implementation. In the meantime, if he seems to race around in circles, it's because we live in an urban madhouse. With his talents he could become a LaGuardia or even a Roosevelt when and if America commits itself to a domestic agenda. Those leaders were pragmatic improvisers who sweatshop reform, labor legislation, and Social Security and cobbled together a new concept of government's role in the economy made necessary by movements that arose from below. Today too many reformers think reform is driving a Prius and and drinking fair-trade coffee, not forcing changes in our military and trade policies that currently amount to forced privatizations abroad. The inner cities are strangling as a result.

My difference with Bruck, based on our discussions, is that she doesn't agree that the Mayor has the capacity. I hope she is proven wrong, but time will tell. In the meantime, I wonder if The New Yorker has any thoughts on New York solutions to these problems. Or is New York caught up in personality politics as the solution to structural crisis?