Antonio Villaraigosa hopes to be judged on his accomplishments, not his personal life

The first Mexican-American mayor of Los Angeles speaks openly about his personal past, his record and the new tough race for Governor of California.
Antonio Villaraigosa hopes to be judged on his accomplishments, not his personal life
In a recent visit to the desert, Villaraigosa accompanied a group that leaves water out for migrants who perish in the heat and for lack of water and food (Photo: provided by AV).

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is running for Governor of California in 2018, five years after stepping down as the first Mexican-American mayor of a big city and leaving many years of public service to work in the private sector.

He will face a tough campaign, running against Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the best-funded Democrat in the race, and California Treasurer John Chiang. Republicans like businessman John Cox have joined the fray in an open primary set for June 5th, 2018, in which only the top two vote-getters will go to a second round.

In his first long-form interview with La Opinion during this campaign, Villaraigosa discusses his record, the personal pitfalls that affected his image and the fights he took on during his eight years at the helm of Los Angeles City government.

This is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, which was conducted in the first week of November 2017 in Los Angeles.

Do you feel do you have an image problem you need to clean up?

No, I had eight years as mayor. It´s not an image problem, I had a big job in a really tough time in this city during the worst recession since the 1930s.

I think it has a lot to do with having to make tough decisions and I was never afraid to do that. I said “dream with me”, that we´d make LA the cleanest big city in the country and we reduced carbon emissions by 28% in four years. We were the number one American city and the number five in the world to reduce that much.

We signed agreements to get completely off of coal. We did three rail lines and one busway, more than anybody in the country in eight years. We passed the half-penny sales tax generating 40 billion dollars.

We took LA from one of the most violent big cities to one of the safest, with 49% reduction in violent crime and a 45% drop in homicides.

We took on the schools that had a 44% graduation rate, by the time we left it was 72%. One out of three schools was failing, by the time we left it was one out of ten.  Back then, 89 out of 700 plus were actually succeeding, we took it to 260. And we did all of this in the middle of a recession with the city ready to go into bankruptcy.

I had to furlough 37,000 people for three years, I had to do pension reform. I was mayor in a really tough time, and I wasn´t afraid to make the tough decisions.

If you look at my approval rating, it went down after my affair and it never came back to where it was, it was almost nothing I could do to get some people back.

I can tell you this was a reflection of a guy who was big city mayor at a tough time, who had an affair. And that took the legs from under me.

Go back and look at the Dream with Me speech, all the promises I made and all the things I accomplished in eight years.  You look at downtown today and so much of what is up was started under me.

There are people that aren´t happy with me. For some, I will regain their trust in the course of the campaign. I´m already seeing that happen. For others, I won´t, that´s the way it is. It´s not an image problem, it´s a reflection I took on big issues and I´m going to take them on as governor.

I´m not just running to take a space.

But now you have to convince those people to vote for you…

No, I have to convince people to vote for me. What´s the difference between who I was when you first met me and now? I don´t have to be all things to all people. I have to look at the man in the mirror and feel comfortable with it, and I do. I feel proud of the work that I did, the things I accomplished and the fact that I´m not afraid to take on tough issues.

You mentioned downtown, yes it has changed for the better, but gentrification is a huge problem, rents are too high.

Don´t put the last four years on me.

I´m talking about today.

…Homelessness has gone up 46% since I´ve been mayor, crime, violent crime.

You don´t think the increase in homelessness has anything to do with anything you did? Safer cities? Aggressive enforcement in the area?

I think it has everything to do with people can´t find housing, that the housing crisis is a disaster, safer cities made…. we didn´t have all this homelessness when we had that program, not when I left.

You don´t believe any of your policies downtown had anything to do with the gentrification that is happening?

No, I think it has everything to do with we haven´t built the housing. I had a 100 million housing trust fund.

What do they have now? I put that money there. I built 2500 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless, Hahn and Riordan did 726 in 12 years.

We did 20,000 units for affordable and workforce, while I was mayor in a recession. I don´t think there´s anything I did that caused today. All I can tell you, my vantage point I took on the tough issues, some people like me and some don´t.

You are right there´s some people that don´t support my candidacy, I respect that but there´ll be a lot of people in L.A. that will.

You also mentioned your personal past. Lots of people bring that up and they say, well it´s an ethics issue. It´s obviously personal but also public, because it became so. And you have addressed that in your video…

I addressed it when I was mayor and I´ve said it 100 times.

…but we are in the middle of an awareness of issues that have to do with the private lives of people…

No! (he reacts swiftly). There´s a big difference between having an affair and sexual harassment.

People confuse them.

Yes, unfortunately, they do but you know what: you get to ask every question and I get to push back.   There´s a big difference and you don´t compare them. Sexual harassment is one thing, they do this on the job. I had an affair, that´s not sexual harassment.

You´ve never crossed that line?

No. You can´t put both in the same question. I´ve said it before, that wasn´t my first time, I made a lot of mistakes but Gavin Newsom has made them too with his best friend´s wife, and she was actually working for him. She was on his payroll, she was not a work for two months and he was paying them. That´s a big difference. I did have an affair with a consenting adult.

And people didn´t like it, I understand. I have a great relationship with Corina (Raigosa, former wife) and my kids, those two things aren´t the same.

I was also going to mention Sacramento because recently there were some complaints that the process there is not conducive to women reporting sexual harassment. Is there something that you know today that you didn´t know then that you can apply?

I used to be working with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) so I enforced our nations discrimination laws including sexual harassment claims. I think we need to really double down and change the culture, a culture that´s demeaning to women that sends a signal that sexual harassment isn´t something serious. And it should be dealt with strongly.

In terms of Harvey Weinstein and the various people who´ve been ousted were committing criminal assault, essentially…when you grab a woman, that´s not even sexual harassment, that´s much worse.

I learned on the job that I had that we got to take this seriously and we got to change the culture. After reading about some things that went on in the legislature, I think they are also unacceptable.

Opening their pants and showing their….I mean, who does that? It´s outrageous.  we have to take those allegations seriously, they should be investigated and be hold accountable depending on the severity of the situation, including discharge.

Healthcare, what´s your stance on single payer for California?

I´ve been really clear, I support single-payer, government-paid health care in concept, but I think our first priority is to protect ACA (Affordable Care Act).  There are 3 to 5 million people who could lose their health care because of Trump´s and Congress proposals I want to focus on protecting them first.

Back in 95-96, I proposed expanding Medical to 200% above poverty, which is a form of single payer for kids, I couldn’t get a vote I didn´t have funding plan. Without a funding plan, single payer is pie in the sky and that won´t put food on our table.

I ´ve taken a different position with Gavin Newsom on that but I have a record. Remember I´m the author of Healthy Families, from which 750,000 kids got health care. I´ve been for universal health care my whole life but I´m not for selling snake oil. I think you got to be straight with people.

How then do you address the ACA, the cuts to subsidies and sabotage by Trump?

You got to start there first, this notion that you´ll start with single payer? Do you know what that means?  You have a health plan with your job. The only thing that single payer says is that the government pays for it, it doesn´t say what´s in it. It´s just pie in the sky stuff right now. I say start with ACA, protect the 3 to 5 million people.

If the federal government cuts 22 billion dollars in payments to California…our budget is 183 billion, so that´s 13% of our budget. That´s astronomical. How do we protect it? With great difficulty.

One of the things I want to look into is a public option so people can buy into Medical, you can´t buy into Medicare cause you need waivers from the federal govt.

If you bring in a public option, it allows you to have the government to be in that business, in a way that you could buy into Medical. That´s one form of a public option. We really should look at our drug formularies, try to reduce drug costs…really focus on cost containment and control. To protect those 3-5 million we´d probably have to focus a lot on cost control.

I´m for universal health care, I´m for single payer in concept. But it´s a 400 billion price tag. It´s achievable if the federal government partners with California. Us doing it on our own would be very difficult. Not with this administration.

On immigration: do you think the California Values Act that was just passed went far enough, too far? What else would you do to protect immigrants in the state?

I supported the CVA, I know some were angry at Kevin (De León, State Senate President pro-tem) because they wanted to include murderers and rapists in there. When they originally did it, it included everybody and that was ridiculous, I mean Latinos aren´t for that. Nobody is. That would invite an initiative that we would lose.

I remember fighting …since I was 15 I´ve been fighting for immigrants, cuando no podía hablar ni una palabra de español (he sometimes changes to Spanish in the middle of a sentence).

I think the original one went too far. We have to be practical, I take on the left all the time. Letting out those people is that the best way to protect immigrants? If you try to protect them, the public won´t buy it and we´ll lose it for everybody

It´s like affirmative action. I was the only guy who put 25 million dollars to fight Proposition 209 (back in 1998), but I told everybody who was against it: Should I have been included in affirmative action? Yeah. Should my son knock out a white guy who is poor? No.

Why? My point is, I supported the California Values Act.  I do think there are some other things we need to do. Something I´ve been arguing, we need a law that prohibits ICE from coming into public courthouses, hospitals, schools, universities, college campuses, any governmental building where people have to go, without a specific warrant for a specific individual.

They can´t just go to a courthouse and look over everybody, intimidate everybody, they´ve to have…but not everybody. I want to do that law. We need to do it.

What about sanctuary state, people use that terminology, some like it some don´t. What do you say?  

I accept it. LA was in the definition, we qualified for 8 years but I never called it that. We just did it.  We´ve been doing it for years.

Do you think California is going to lose a lot of money over that issue?

I think we ought to stand up for our values, and we got to use the 10th amendment the way Texas did against Obama, to stand up for our state´s right to mark a different path. I was never afraid to stand up for who I am. I go in front of the most conservative audience and they tell me, are you for the bill? I say yeah. They always want to call it sanctuary, but I think it represents our values.

I said this at a debate and (Gavin) Newsom didn´t like it. Everyone says it started in San Francisco. It actually started in LA, it started under Daryl Gates a very conservative police chief, he didn´t do it because he wanted sanctuary. It´s pragmatic, we want witnesses and victims to come forward.

Many big unions are supporting that a big disappointment? I hear many union members saying that they´re not going to work for your election, that you´ll pay for betraying them.

As I said I was mayor at a tough time. I gave our city unions a 25% raise, we were supposed to get 10% back in productivity savings and the savings didn´t show up. We couldn´t fall back, the language didn´t allow it, so we had to do furloughs 40 days a year.

I didn´t run on that, I didn´t do it because I was anti-union. I did it because we could have gone bankrupt. And they have a pension plan today because of that. And some acknowledge it.

How come nobody writes: they spent 1.8 million to get me elected. It took courage to take on them. You guys always write when they spend the money and we do something for the people that support us. But you don´t report it when we had friction. And it wasn´t because I was anti-union.

I got to take on this poverty issue, housing prices, health care crisis. I know who doesn´t have health care, who is struggling the most, I know who is affected the most by the fact that our schools are failing so many kids.

This time around  I got to understand this is bigger than me. Luckily I am happily married, me tengo que comportar en una manera que se entienda que estoy abriendo una puerta grandísima. La campaña habla más de las aspiraciones de un pueblo de participar e integrarse al tejido social y político de este estado y país. This time around I get there´s no room to make mistakes like that again.

One thing that puzzled me and still does is your affiliation or “advisory” position with Herbalife. Are you proud of that?

Yes, let me tell you why. They were an LA company, an LA company whose product and their whole platform is about health and nutrition, they give people a shot at building, if not a small business, at least a little extra income on a monthly basis. My mother sold Tupperware and Avon, I know why Latinos and blacks do it, they need a few extra bucks. It´s called a multiple level marketing company, that´s what Tupperware is, what Avon is, they´ve been around for 30 years. Pyramid schemes aren´t around for 30 years.

But the FTC didn´t have to offer the money back to people in a settlement for Avon…

They´ve …virtually all multiple level marketing companies have been charged and have had things that, do you know how many fortune 500 companies have been charged by the FTC? Maybe 25%

Ok, If everyone does it then it´s ok?

No, they´re not perfect. One of my jobs was to help them navigate that, helping them to be a better company, I think they are a better company today. When I left my job, the newspapers wrote, Villaraigosa has no house, no car, no job. What did that mean? I wasn´t a thief. You talk about Latin America one reason people don´t vote is that they think all politicians are corrupt.

I didn´t capitalize or lobby, not that there´s anything wrong with lobbying but I worked for private companies.

How much did Herbalife pay you?

A lot of money, I´m going to put it out in my taxes, they paid me a lot so did the bank of California…I made a lot of money after leaving public life.

So I made it after. When you see my taxes, you´d say Antonio did well. I have a name and most people respect it. I did a few things where I felt I helped improve.

Many people think that California invests too much in prison not enough on education. How will you address that?

I agree, I support universal preschool,  full day kinder and early childhood education, and I want to make our schools better, K-12.

I´m one of the few guys that debated Ron Unz (proponent of the 1998 initiative that got away with bilingual programs) I put money in opposition to Proposition 227.

Back then my wife (a teacher) told me about kids that were kept in bilingual programs for 10 years. That was not the goal. Then they would be in a program and they didn´t even have bilingual teachers. People don´t want that.

On immigration, on affirmative action and Prop 13, you got to have a balance. (He has proposed changes to the law that would raise taxes on commercial property, not residential)

I recall something from a decade ago.

Before being in office I used to do all the immigration marches, that´s what many of us come out of.  We would always go to the federal building. But during the 2006-07 marches, they came to City Hall cause I was mayor.

Many of my staff didn´t want me to go outside. There was a big argument, mostly between white and Latinos, whites felt it would kill me politically. I was at 84% in the polls after a year as mayor. My other staff said If it´s not you, who? you got to go out.

I said I´m going out, but you´ll meet with (the organizers)  and tell them I don´t want Mexican flags, we got to win this fight. I want speeches about what a great country we are. We got to have tons of families.

We negotiated that. it was beautiful and I came out. The next week, my polling went down 20 points. (Mayors of NY and Chicago) Bloomberg and Daly spoke to the marches in their cities and their numbers went up.

I remember CNN coming after me cause I said: “I don´t see illegal people here today, I see human beings. And they killed me for that”.

Then two weeks afterward, the kids came, they wore bandanas, closed the freeway, they said f… the US, they had Mexican flags, they were closing down freeways and I had to arrest them. The left was upset at me.

I said, the parents of these young people came to this country so they could have an education, they got to be in school. We ended up giving them truancy tickets, but I talked to the judges and they gave them work.

Didn´t you participate in the 68 walkouts in East LA?

Yeah, and they told me that.  Yes, I did lead them. I also got kicked out of school for them. There are consequences for their actions, they got to be in school.

You want to march? Do it after school but you are going to school. I am a parent too. I´m going to be who I am. I think the positions I take I try to take based on looking at the man in the mirror. I can´t do what you believe I have to do what I believe.

Do you consider yourself a progressive?

Of course, I am, I stand up for immigrants, I took on the death penalty, I did more for climate change than they are doing now, the state is now doing standards.

But I am a practical progressive. I always try to do it based on what I think it´s right or wrong and what we can do in the world we live in.

You got to acknowledge the world that we have, you got to sell all this stuff. People were critical of Obama, we all were, he did a damn good job given where we were. Could he have done more? Yeah, so could have Clinton so could I.

Obama should have stopped with the deporter-in-chief stuff when he figured that Republicans weren´t giving him any credit. The difference between Obama and I on immigration is “I feel it in here” (he points to his heart). Those are my people.

And I´m a Mexican, we are getting targeted. I´m not afraid to say it to an all-white audience. Why is it that Mexicans are 50% of the undocumented and all they talk about is Mexicans, they don´t talk about all the other undocumented.

To them, you are a Mexican (he points to me, a Venezuelan).

The election is going to be tough. Newsom has more money and started earlier. Are you aiming to be the second to emerge out of the primary?

I´m aiming to get out of the primary as first or second. I recognize I´m underdog. This is going to be as tough as any other race I´ve run.  I broke glass ceilings a few times. My first win was in the assembly in a district that wasn´t Latino but Anglo.

I admit I made mistakes, but I have a record. When I speak I say what I believe, it´s not always popular, not everybody has to agree, but I am willing to take on powerful forces, even my friends, and that´s important.

One of my daughters, Marisela,  says she hears people talk about me. I have good news and bad news, she said to me one day. The people that love you, really love you. and the bad news is that those who don´t are the most hated politician in LA.

A lot of people don´t like me…because I win, because I have a record, because I have made my mistakes. When you do big things that are controversial you are going to get opposition.

I had to govern, they want you to be like you were in 1994 when you are starting out.

Will Latinos turn out?

Our people lost their homes more than anyone, then all the deportations happened, now there´s a malaise and a cynicism in our community that´s not healthy.

Yo le digo a la gente siempre Trump habla y hace porque no tiene respeto porque no votamos y no participamos.Si queremos ese respeto tenemos que empujar. Tenemos que decirles que hay consecuencias para sus acciones.

I hope I´ll get Latinos out to vote, If I do I´ll be the next governor, if I don´t, I won´t be.

(This is the first in a series of interviews of the candidates for governor of California, by La Opinion´s senior political writer Pilar Marrero. She has covered every California governor race of the last 20 years)