Times have changed considerably since the early July day in 2005 when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger heard loud boos from a crowd of about 6,000 when introduced on the south steps of Los Angeles City Hall during the mayoral inauguration of longtime Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.
At the time, Schwarzenegger was pushing a series of anti-union, anti-abortion ballot initiatives for the special election he staged last November while Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the state Assembly and onetime labor union organizer, vigorously opposed him and his measures.
But these two have long since made peace. Now they are staging a long-running duet that some have called a waltz. In reality, their arrangement looks more like classic you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours. If all works out for these two, Schwarzenegger would be reelected this fall, with Villaraigosa in position to take his place him in 2010.
Schwarzenegger made the first solid overture in this dance. In April, he named Villaraigosa’s sister, Mary Lou Villar, a $149,000-per-year judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court. Not to say she wasn’t qualified: the mayor’s sister spent many years as both a legal aid attorney and an administrative law judge on the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.
But how many similarly qualified poverty lawyers and administrative law judges has Schwarzenegger elevated to full judgeships? Not many.
Next, Villaraigosa delightedly supported the governor’s package of construction and repair bonds, due to appear on the November ballot as a series of propositions. He appeared with the governor in several places to extol their virtues because they promise billions of dollars for his city.
Then Schwarzenegger quietly backed Villaraigosa’s scheme to take control of the huge Los Angeles Unified School District. This, the mayor insists, will be good for children. Never mind the fact that similar mayoral power grabs have proven not very successful in Chicago and New York.
It’s still uncertain whether state legislators will endorse the deal worked out by the charismatic Villaraigosa, the equally flashy Schwarzenegger, teachers, union leaders and mayors of small cities like San Fernando, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens which are subsumed by the gigantic Los Angeles school district.
The deal would give Villaraigosa and succeeding mayors direct control of dozens of schools, veto power over selection of top school district officials and allow local principals and teachers far greater say about curriculum than they have today.
It’s a huge increase in sheer power for the both mayor and the teachers union for which he once worked.
And what has he done in exchange for all this familial and political support from Schwarzenegger? Merely keep his mouth shut. Unlike most other Democrats, Villaraigosa – America’s most visible and most influential Latino officeholder – has not lifted a finger to help Phil Angelides, his party’s candidate against Schwarzenegger this fall.
When prominent Democrats – including Angelides’ bitter primary election opponent Steve Westly – met in Los Angeles the morning after the June vote to stress party unity, Villaraigosa was pointedly absent.
In short, the Villaraigosa/Schwarzenegger duet has essentially deprived Democrat Angelides of the support of this state’s most prominent Latino politician.
The reason plainly is power. Schwarzenegger used his to hand the mayor’s sister a high-value judicial sinecure. If passed, his bond package would give Villaraigosa billions in transit funds for the mayor’s pipe dream of a subway from downtown Los Angeles to the beach. Similarly, Schwarzenegger will not stand in the way of Villaraigosa’s school district power grab.
In fact, standing idle while Angelides runs against Schwarzenegger could work out well for Villaraigosa. Arnold will be termed out in 2010, when Antonio (if reelected in 2009) would also be looking at term limits. It’s no secret Villaraigosa thirsts to be governor.
If Angelides should win this year, he would likely run for reelection in 2010, forcing Villaraigosa either to wait his turn or challenge a sitting governor in a divisive primary fight. But if Angelides loses, as he surely will if he doesn’t get large-scale Latino backing, the path might be clear for Villaraigosa.
So it’s all about power. In exchange for that, former union organizer Villaraigosa can forgive Schwarzenegger even his attempt last year to emasculate unions’ political power. Meanwhile, in exchange for four more years in power, Schwarzenegger will give Villaraigosa almost anything he wants.
You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.