Villaraigosa Says Education, Police Department Reform at Top of His Agenda

The Business Journal kicks off a six-part series this week that will spotlight each of the major candidates running to become the next mayor of Los Angeles. This series begins with former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who last week met with the Business Journal's news team to discuss his reasons for running, his plans to help L.A. businesses, as well as how he would tackle troubles at the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. Unified School District and other issues.

Question: As you faced term limits, you could have run for the state Senate and eventually made a run for statewide office. Yet you chose to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Why?

Answer: I was born and raised in L.A. and lived my entire life here. My mother was born here and my grandfather arrived here in 1903. This city has given me more than I could ever have hoped for, especially growing up on the Eastside. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would get elected to the state Legislature and Speaker of the State Assembly.

I believe that this city at this point in time needs a bridge builder. We don't speak with a common language or share a common vision for the city. I demonstrated in Sacramento an ability to bring people together.

When I was first elected Speaker, I talked about how I wanted to bring civility and bipartisanship. A lot of my colleagues sort of rolled their eyes. By the time I left, even Republicans were saying I was the most bipartisan Speaker in memory. And that's what Los Angeles needs right now, somebody that can work across the ideological divides, a mayor that can work with the City Council and not always fight them. I think I'm that person. And as I looked at my options, this seemed like the right fit.

Q: A lot of attention has been focused on discussions that were held in which Congressman Xavier Becerra was asked to drop out of the race lest you and he split the Latino base. Did you ask him to drop out?

A: Let's get one thing straight: I'm not running as the Latino candidate or even as one of two Latino candidates. I took on the other media on that issue. When I was Speaker of the Assembly, a lot of questions came at me about what it felt like to be the second Latino Speaker. I said, "Wait a minute. I'm not a Speaker just for Latinos. I want to be Speaker for everybody." And that's exactly what I was. When (former School Superintendent) Ruben Zacarias was being fired and people came up to me and asked me how as a Latino I could let this happen, I said, "Hold it. Accountability has to be color-blind. What do you mean you can't fire him because he's Latino? He has to be judged by how he's done on the job. They can hire him or fire him. That's their decision."

I'm very passionate about this, as you can see. That's the problem with this city. I honestly believe people will vote for me or not vote for me because they think I'm too liberal or I don't have any city experience. But not because I'm Latino.

Now to your other question. I absolutely did not ask him (Becerra) to withdraw.

Q: And no one on your behalf asked him to withdraw?

A: No. Henry Cisneros and (L.A. County Supervisor) Gloria Molina asked us all to meet. Look, Becerra and I have been friends for 20 years. He even lived with me when he ran for Congress. I supported him in every campaign and he supported me. They (Cisneros and Molina) were trying to get two friends not to run. Two friends who, by the way, represent the same district my district was completely within his. The only thing that Cisneros and Molina asked Xavier to do that he didn't want to do was to conduct a poll. And he didn't want to do that because he knew he couldn't beat me if we ran face-to-face. He said that, and we're all seeing that.

Q: So if Becerra remains in the race and takes just enough votes away from you to knock you out of the runoff, wouldn't you look upon him as a spoiler?

A: Look, if I can't get out of the primary, it has nothing to do with Xavier Becerra and it has everything to do with an inability to get my message out. Having said that, I believe I will make the runoff notwithstanding his presence.

Q: Which of your opponents for mayor are you most concerned about?

A: This is a very strong field of candidates. But if there is one I'm most concerned about, it would be (City Attorney) Jimmy Hahn. With the exception of African Americans, his base is the most like mine. He's the one I'm most neck-and-neck with in the polls, especially in the Valley.

Q: What would your first action be upon taking office as Mayor on July 1?

A: There are three areas I will focus on immediately upon becoming Mayor. The first action I would take is to form a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The biggest challenge Los Angeles faces is revitalizing its schools.

We need to build 100 new schools in the next 10 years. As mayor, I would help identify some of those sites, and then look to put parks and libraries next to those schools and really make them into neighborhoods.

We also need to expand our after-school programs and draw in extra state funds to help those schools with the lowest test scores. And we need to use untapped state funds to focus on adult education and English as a Second Language classes. We cannot compete in a cybernetic society and create good, middle-class jobs if people can't speak the language and they don't have the skills.

Q: Mayor Riordan took quite a bit of criticism for moving beyond his areas of direct jurisdiction and getting involved in LAUSD affairs two years ago. You appear to be going in the same direction with your top priority as mayor.

A: We want a city with good, high-paying jobs. Yet we know that businesses that offer those high-paying jobs will only come here if there are good schools. They need a trained workforce. And right now, there is a crisis in our schools. There is a reason that (New York Mayor) Rudy Giuliani and (Chicago Mayor) Richard M. Daley are focusing on revitalizing their public school systems. The mayor needs to get involved. But I'm not suggesting that the mayor become a school superintendent or get involved by backing this (school board) candidate over another candidate. The mayor needs to use the bully pulpit. We must hold schools accountable.

Q: What are the other areas you would focus on first as mayor?

A: We must get a handle on the crisis in the Los Angeles Police Department. There has been a loss of public confidence in the LAPD and that confidence must be restored. Right now, we've got horizontal accountability in the LAPD: 68 officers were implicated in Rampart, but it never moved up the chain of command. We need to have vertical accountability, starting right at the top with Chief (Bernard) Parks.

We also need to put the Rampart scandal behind us by moving with speed and dispatch on the issue of reform. I think that the Mayor's decision to remove (L.A. Police Commission President Gerald) Chaleff is a step backwards. It's a clear indication that obstacles are being placed in the way of reform.

People must realize that nobody is above the law, not even police officers.

Q: Speaking of LAPD reform, some of the other candidates have said they have problems with certain aspects of the consent decree. Do you have any problems with it?

A: I support the consent decree. In fact, in some ways, the consent decree doesn't go far enough. There is no mention of community policing, and I believe that is at the core of what we must do to reform the LAPD. We need to restore people's trust in the department, and what better way than to be on a first-name basis with officers in a community policing program?

Q: And the third area you plan to focus on?

A: The area of economic development. We have to stop doling out economic development dollars the way the Congress spreads around pork. Mayor Riordan's business teams have done a good job in attracting business to the city. But if you read the (UCLA Professor) David Runsten study, the business teams treat a job as a job as a job. There is no distinction between minimum-wage jobs and good, high-wage jobs. The business teams need to be more specific. We need to focus on growth industries like high tech, telecommunications, health and biomedical science.

Q: But there are those who say government and specifically a mayor shouldn't get involved in picking winners and losers in our local economy.

A: We do not have the resources to provide funds for everyone. So we need to make sure what money we do spend goes to creating high-quality jobs. One of the first things I'm going to do is form a council of economic advisors and on that council will be the Jack Kysers of the world, people who really know about the L.A. economy. They will help decide how we should best use our resources.

And another thing: We've got two fantastic institutions in this city in UCLA and USC. We should strive to make them science and technology centers in the same way that Stanford became a science and technology center that spawned Silicon Valley, or the way UC San Diego became a center for the biotech industry in San Diego. I was instrumental in getting funds approved for that $100 million nano-research center over at UCLA that will spawn all sorts of new miniature high-tech applications. We need more approaches like that.

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