Antonio Villaraigosa pauses atop a staircase at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and recalls an altercation with a “gang guy” who bumped into him on his first day of school.
He remembers apologizing as the books he was carrying tumbled to the ground. His larger aggressor wasn’t having it, however, summoning the much quicker Villaraigosa to a fight by the bleachers.
“I didn’t wait for the bleachers,” said Villaraigosa, now 64 and a candidate for California governor. Asked who won the skirmish, he allows a slight smile, his eyes flashing. “It was over pretty quick.”
Nobody in next year’s gubernatorial contest has stood through so many brawls, physical and otherwise. His early activism attracted devoted supporters who joined him in marches and on picket lines, and remain close to him today. But Villaraigosa’s improbable rise from East Los Angeles to become Assembly speaker and the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century has covered him in political scar tissue.
After law school, he set out as a bargainer for the teachers union. He relied on labor’s support to lift him into elected office. Yet as mayor, he disappointed some unions representing city workers when, in the depths of the economic recession, he laid off employees, curtailed services and extended early retirements to cut costs. The Democrat also accused teachers unions of defending a broken system, challenging their supremacy. Some in the unions, he later argued, were in “full-throated denial” over a superior court ruling striking down the state’s teacher tenure and seniority laws.
The positions have made him a target of labor, particularly education unions, which argue that Villaraigosa is no champion of workers. They say he long ago sided with rich interests out to destroy them.
At a coffee shop in Boyle Heights, Gloria Martinez, a fifth-grade teacher before becoming an officer at United Teachers Los Angeles, predicted her colleagues would have a prominent voice in advancing the message that Villaraigosa is “bad for public schools.”
“I don’t think teachers forget things that easily,” Martinez said. “Here in L.A., teachers are like, ‘Anybody but Villaraigosa.’”
As he runs for governor, Villaraigosa is now trying to project a measured and collaborative approach he believes reflects the nuances of his relationships with unions.
“I am for workers, but I understand that I have a fiduciary responsibility to the public to protect hard-working taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I am very much a progressive, but one who understands you got to balance budgets. (You) gotta to be prudent with taxpayer dollars.”
“I’m for our unions,” he added during the recent visit to Roosevelt. “And some will be for me. There’s no question about this.”
Using his own “second chance” as evidence, Villaraigosa points to education as the economic, democratic, national security and civil rights issues of our time. He was expelled from Cathedral High School, a private Catholic school where he led student walkouts, for fighting. He enrolled at Roosevelt in October of 1969. “It wasn’t a great experience at first,” he remembered.
He had been taking college prep courses, but now was placed in basic reading and math – along with upholstery. He cut class and dropped out after a few months, but returned the following fall and took classes four nights a week to graduate on time. Villaraigosa credits his mother and a longtime school counselor, the late Herman Katz, for encouraging and motivating him to finish at a time when the graduation rate was just 25 percent. Still, he doesn’t sugarcoat his progress up to that point, noting his grade-point average was 1.4.
Villaraigosa would go on to East Los Angeles Community College, then UCLA, thanks to affirmative action. He may have came in through the back door, Villaraigosa said in a familiar refrain. “But one thing is for sure, I left through the front.”
He continued his activism and discovered more deeply “the power of education.” At UCLA, he said, he was just fifteen miles from home, “but a world away in terms of life experiences.”
Villaraigosa went on to work seven years as an organizer for UTLA, then signed on as a consultant for the California Teachers Association. When term limits forced him out as Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa remained tight with labor as he campaigned for mayor in 2001, securing the endorsement of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization of 800,000 workers. Unions at the time were amassing big wins, but Villaraigosa fell short of City Attorney James Hahn in the mayor’s race.
After the setback, Villaraigosa took a job consulting for the Keck Foundation, which sought to build a biomedical research and industrial park near County-USC Medical Center. News reports at the time say he was recommended for the position by the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad, a key political ally whose efforts to expand charter schools were endorsed by Villaraigosa.
He kept close with labor when he won a City Council seat in 2003. After winning the mayor’s race two years later, Villaraigosa approved raises of nearly 25 percent over five years for more than 20,000 city employees. The agreement was viewed as a response to a lucrative 2005 contract for 8,000 workers in the Department of Water and Power. The new mayor warned about the implications of the DWP deal on future union pacts, yet he signed it amid threats of a strike and fears that IBEW Local 18 could file an unfair labor practices lawsuit.
As the economic recession took hold, Cheryl Parisi, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36 and chair of the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, recalled working with the mayor’s legal counsel on a plan that called for 2,400 early retirements and deferring negotiated pay raises out to later years in exchange for no layoff guarantees. It was set for adoption in 2009 when Villaraigosa announced he wouldn’t back the settlement because it put the city in financial jeopardy. The council adopted a similar plan with a veto-proof majority anyway.
Faced with the major budget deficit, Villaraigosa then made a decision to lay off a small handful of lower-wage child care and library workers, triggering the payment of the deferred pay raises and increased costs to the city. Parisi described Villaraigosa’s moves and comments at the time as “erratic” when the city needed a steady hand.
“Times like that show who you are, what your values are and how you respond to crisis,” she said. “In my mind there just seemed to be no mastery of the details.”
Relations between the mayor and firefighters union so spoiled that they put up orange signs warning the public that “you and your family are in danger” and City Hall is “gambling with your lives.” At the time he chided its leaders for using scare tactics and for being irresponsible for refusing to engage in “shared sacrifice” necessitated by the tough budget times. “We did not make this crisis up,” he said.
Later, when Villaraigosa sought changes to the pension system – requiring employees to work longer and pay more into their retirement – unions made unflattering comparisons between the former labor organizer and Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, sending out fliers with pictures of the two under the headline “Separated at birth.”
Villaraigosa reflects on the pension changes, job cuts and furloughs as difficult but necessary: “I didn’t run on any of those things, but the city was falling into the abyss,” he said.
“That was a bumpy time, with a lot of pushing back and forth,” added María Elena Durazo, a longtime labor leader and Villaraigosa ally. “But I can safely say he never took an anti-union position.”
Other union bosses whose members shared in the sacrifice agreed. Peter Repovich, former director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, credited Villaraigosa for not putting a hiring freeze on the LAPD, avoiding top candidates taking jobs elsewhere. Officers had to bank their hours for paid time off rather than overtime.
“Would I like it as a labor guy, necessarily? No, I wouldn’t,” Repovich said. “Civilian labor maybe had more issues (with Villaraigosa) than we did. But for the most part, he took a bad situation and he dealt with it as best he could ... He supported public safety.”
Villaraigosa points to his pro-labor bona fides, his support for collective bargaining, union-friendly project labor agreements and his work settling nasty strikes. He was central to a plan to clean up trucks entering the port, said Ron Herrera, secretary-treasurer at Teamsters Local 396. “Every ‘ask’ that the Teamsters have gone to him (with), he’s delivered,” Herrera said.
Joel Kotkin, a writer and urban scholar at Chapman University, said Villaraigosa’s dilemma in the governor’s race is one he shares with Democrats that dominate the state. Their most powerful constituency is public employee unions, Kotkin said, but the labor groups often pose the biggest threats to the budget.
For Villaraigosa, “the question is whether he’s willing to become the reform candidate,” Kotkin said.
His history in education may provide a clue. In the Assembly, he worked to secure funding for school facilities, carried measures to lower class sizes and boost teacher performance.
Early in his tenure as mayor, Villaraigosa talked about bolstering after-school programs and improving schools, which by then were still graduating just 44 percent of their students. He adopted the position that the only way to turn them around was to take them over. “I grew into it,” he said of the belief, which he shared with the likes of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
After failing to wrest control from Los Angeles Unified, Villaraigosa created a nonprofit group to manage a handful of spiraling public schools, including Roosevelt. Villaraigosa helped raise millions of dollars for the “partnership” schools, which have seen graduation rates improve. He said he didn’t expect the pushback from teachers and would have preferred to collaborate.
“There were some who really tried to make it work initially, but they got a lot of pressure from their members, and over time it became opposition,” he said.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood and I mentioned that fight,” he said of the teenage scuffle. “I’ve never looked for a fight in my whole life. But I always was willing to fight for what I believe in.”
Those who share his belief in the approach, including Steve Barr, the founder of a charter school organization in Los Angeles, think the “litmus test” put forth by unions for their support is unreasonable.
Barr said unions say, “You can’t be with us 80 percent of the time, or 90 percent of the time. You have to be with us 100 percent of the time.”
Villaraigosa, for his part, laments the “false narrative” that he’s only out for charter schools, dismissing it as “ridiculous.” He said he had the option of running charters and instead established the partnership as traditional public schools with the same union contracts. He said he opposes right-to-work lawsuits, including one against the California Teachers Association to weaken the power of unions. In 2012, he joined labor in opposing Proposition 32, which sought to severely weaken labor unions, characterizing it as “fraud,” not reform.
Still, he’s frustrated that leaders aren’t “trying new things” to improve schools, and believes the governor’s role in education is to be “the pied piper of improving schools.”
“Why is our calendar based on the harvest?” he asked in a series of questions. “Why aren’t we putting more resources for the kids who need more? Why aren’t we bringing in more technology? Why aren’t we focusing more on teacher training? Why aren’t we connecting the resources with the results? Why aren’t we measuring success? What is wrong with that?”
Outside Roosevelt, he pauses to talk with a student at the magnet school, which now has a 99.6 percent graduation rate. Villaraigosa tells her why he got involved in education. “I believe in you guys.”
The senior from South Central says she’s thinking of studying urban development and political science in college. She would like to run for City Council one day.
“It’s one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs you can have,” she tells him. “It is,” he replied.