04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Antonio Villaraigosa: The Mayor We Deserve

I didn't know anything about Antonio Villaraigosa during his first mayoral run in 2001. I had just recently moved to Los Angeles in my own egocentric quest to become the hot new voice in LA indie cinema.

Instead, I became the hot new voice in SAT tutoring, telemarketing, and data entry. Perhaps you missed the Rolling Stone feature.

By 2005, a collision of self-realization and Jewish guilt prompted me to ditch my grandiose intentions in lieu of a career in public education, and I became more invested in the community. Which meant that when the former activist-turned-politico girded for his second mayoral run against milquetoast incumbent James Hahn, I took notice.

Villaraigosa was equally comfortable addressing massive crowds, the Chamber of Commerce, and rambunctious pre-adolescents; his crossover appeal assuaged concerns among Brentwood pilates moms and West Valley Anglos that he was perhaps too brown, too MEChA.

He was pre-Obama. Even better: He was post-Chavez. With phenomenal hair.

But he wasn't perfect. Following a stint at a non-accredited law school, Villaraigosa failed to pass the California Bar on four separate occasions (an ominous sign for a public official required to navigate a host of convoluted city ordinances on a constant basis). He was also known in some political circles as a shameless self-promoter and prickly negotiator.

These foibles made Villaraigosa the ideal candidate for a city mired in a perpetual identity crisis, whose history is relentlessly subsumed by waves of expansion, migration, and re-invention:

Give me your Costcos, your luxury lofts, your dubious acting coaches. Give me your Ohio transplants, future cult leaders, reformed gang-bangers, aspiring talk show hosts, born-again porn stars, and Salvadoran émigrés teeming to be free!

For many Angelenos, history is something to be made in the here and now. Which is why a man who overhauled his persona, his look, and even his name for a singular purpose was such an obvious and ideal representation of us.

In the towering inaugural address that followed his victory over Hahn, in which he invoked the word "dreams" 18 times, the mayor-elect remained stridently optimistic while reeling off the challenges ahead: Traffic jams, skyrocketing dropout rates, diminishing resources, sprawl, gang activity, and abysmal air quality were mere complications that could be overcome if only we had the power to dream big enough.

As we succumbed to Villaraigosa's tapestry of promises, proclamations, and unctuous used car lot charm, his quest became ours: We finally had a leader whose public persona best embodied our idealized version of ourselves: Bold, eloquent, dapper, and impossibly well-coiffed.

And we paid the price for our collective narcissism, slogging through four years of empty promises and half-baked initiatives, while wincing at any proposal that began with the number One Million.

Villaraigosa offered up an array of other quixotic musings, including a proposed no-kill policy for strays at animal shelters (as opposed to an outreach program to educate citizens on the responsibilities of pet ownership); the groundbreaking of a $4.8 billion "Subway to the Sea" colossus with an estimated post-apocalypse completion date of 2030; and multiple haphazard attempts at transforming L.A. into "the greenest city in America," highlighted by a dubious solar power proposal that failed at the polls.

Meanwhile, the "Greenest Mayor in America" has likely generated the largest carbon footprint in L.A. mayoral history. This is partially due to his jettisoning across town in behemoths whose ignition makes those million make-believe trees weep. Overall, however, most of Villaragosa's rapacious fossil fuel consumption is a product of sojourns to some of the most exotic locales (London, New York, Chicago, Hawaii, Denver, Miami, Israel, San Diego, Washington, D.C., San Francisco) a taxpayer's money can buy.

(Like our fading hero, we exhibit similar dissonance regarding our attitudes and actions toward the environment: Despite the persistent clamor for sustainability, Angelenos reside in luxury McCondos and sprawling compounds; swarm farmer's markets for locally- and organically- grown products only to load them into mammoth SUVs; and drive Priuses across a big box store parking lots so as not to put our bodies through the toils of a three-minute Best Buy-to-Target odyssey.)

Most ignominious was Villaraigosa's failed LAUSD takeover bid, a vanity project that exposed the mayor as a man of imprudence, with gaping P.R. blind spots and little patience for details. Aside from the fact that the city charter forbids such an action, the mayor never revealed specific components of his dream scenario to the public. Would the district remain intact? Would there be a more progressive metric to assess student achievement beyond identifying the most proficient bubble-fillers? Would schools continue to be assessed on the eminently flawed Academic Performance Index? And, finally, how would the mayor address the root causes of student failure, such as abuse, neglect, and poverty?

Peddling vague, sweeping notions as legitimate public policy was now endemic to the Villaraigosa Doctrine, and it was wearing thin.

Yet on March 3, 2009, Villaraigosa rose from the political ashes: Emptying his prodigious campaign coffers in a race against virtual unknown Walter Moore, the incumbent received votes from slightly more than half of the 15 percent of eligible citizens who summoned the strength to pause their TiVo's long enough to cast ballots. In the end, he'd won by default. In spite of himself.

Villaraigosa acknowledged as much in his July, 2009 inaugural speech, saying, "In the next four years, we're going to judge ourselves, plain and simple - based on what we build. We intend to write our record in concrete rather than poetry, focused on deadlines over headlines."

That so few Angelenos cast a ballot in the election was at once discouraging and predictable. In LA, passive aggression is a form of protest. Cities like San Francisco, D.C., and Chicago have vehement and, at times, volatile political demonstrations; we have Darwin bumper stickers and "Keep LA Gay" T-shirts.

The election of 2009 passed, unaccompanied by our cultish devotion. Our political passivity returned. Things were back to normal.

Except now we're forced to confront the fallout of our own narcissism and apathy. Amidst the folly of electing - and re-electing - a man with whom we alternately identified and idolized, as opposed to one who could best address complex, deep-seated problems, LA now faces an impending $400 million deficit, at least 3,000 additional layoffs, forced furloughs, vanishing services, and a battered credit rating.

Meanwhile, our air quality is still among the worst in the nation, gridlocked freeways constrict commerce and quality of life, and gang-bangers use swaths of the city as >their own personal fiefdoms. Yet we're still only eight months into Villaraigosa 2.0

And each of us is to blame - for not demanding more of our leaders and ourselves.