Taking a job at a multi-level marketing firm would be a tacky signpost of any first-tier politician's professional trajectory. It's especially unsightly when that politician is Antonio Villaraigosa, who less than a decade ago inspired so much hope among progressives, minorities and the disenfranchised when he became LA's first Latino Mayor since 1872.
Last week, multi-billion dollar supplement/weight loss outfit Herbalife announced the hiring of Villaraigosa via a press release packed with corp-speak. Villaraigosa will be not only a "consultant" but also a "senior advisor" -- no junior advising for him! Both his consulting and his advising will be "strategic," as opposed to, well, non-strategic consulting and advice. He'll work on "business development" and "global community outreach."
The word "lobbyist" was absent from the announcement, but it's no stretch to guess that Villaraigosa was brought in to serve as ambassador to the company's two million-plus distributors, a majority of whom are Latinos. The company faces charges it's operating a pyramid scheme and five Latino groups have asked for an FTC investigation of its business practices.
Herbalife has denied all wrongdoing, and before bringing on Villaraigosa had hired a small army of lobbyists to make its case, including the Podesta Group, the Raben Group, the Ogilvy Group and Downey McGrath Group. That's more groups than a full day's lineup at Coachella.
According to a cover story in LA Weekly last spring, Villaraigosa's final days in office were overshadowed by his need for money. "At an Oscar party," LA Weekly reporter Patrick Range McDonald wrote, Villaraigosa "glided past film stars and caught up to (Fox host/ratings king Bill) O'Reilly, flashing a welcoming grin, according to an Oscar partygoer. Then Villaraigosa loudly asked O'Reilly for help landing an on-camera job. He said he wanted to speak to [Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes about going to work at the network."
As political sell-outs go, Villaraigosa's is far from the most craven. That dishonor probably belongs to lobbying powerhouse Cassidy and Associates. Ken Silverstein wrote in Harper's several years ago that the firm was paid $2.4 million to get Equatorial Guinea's murderous president Teodoro Obiang off Parade Magazine's "10 Worst Dictators" list. (Cassidy's global community outreach evidently succeeded: Obiang dropped to No. 11.)
And Villaraigosa never promised not to lobby, unlike former five-term Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Ct.). Dodd mocked lobbyists while in office and repeatedly vowed never to join their ranks, only to become the chief lobbyist for the movie industry just two months after leaving the Senate. Before long, Dodd was up and running, all but threatening his former colleagues when he said on Fox News, "Those who count on 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."
When Villaraigosa won the mayoralty in 2005, many on the left believed he was the real deal. Harold Meyerson, as astute an observer of L.A. politics as you can find, wrote, in a piece called "Made for Each Other" in LA Weekly, "(V's) rise to power is a testament not only to his own attributes -- commitment, charisma, energy, an ease among strangers, an ability to persuade adversaries to compromise -- but to the rise of labor, Latinos and a civic left in Los Angeles. Which is one way, I suppose, to define Los Angeles exceptionalism. There is no other city in the United States where this same constellation of forces could significantly propel anyone into, or even close to, the Mayor's Office. It's hard to say which is more remarkable -- Villaraigosa's improbable career or the political evolution of the city where he's about to become mayor. What's indisputable is the harmonic convergence of the two."
Harold is usually more skeptic than romantic, and in retrospect his appraisal foreshadowed Villaraigosa's fall: "exceptionalism," "improbable," "harmonic convergence"? On some level, perhaps Harold knew it was all too good to be true.
Even some who lavished praise on the erstwhile mayor tempered their assessments. A laudatory essay in Time gave Villaraigosa high marks on public safety and the environment, but also noted his failures in education reform and jobs and added that he left office "patting himself on the back."
For longtime "Dean of City Hall" reporter Marc Haefele, the Herbalife gig is, in a way, a good fit for Villaraigosa: "You could say that, whether Herbalife is a Ponzi or not, Villaraigosa himself was. This in the sense that so many of us invested our deepest hopes in him and saw them washed away to little or nothing. So maybe he belongs in the firm."