Speaker's Odyssey: From L.A. Streets to Calif. Statehouse

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Antonio R. Villaraigosa hardly fit the profile of a future political star when he was kicked out of high school as a junior for misbehaving one too many times. And things got bleaker when he dropped out after transferring to a new school.

The troubled Los Angeles youth, who was estranged from his father at the age of 5, may have given up on himself had it not been for the undying support of his mother, who admonished: "You're going to make it some day."

Were she still alive, it probably would not have surprised her, then, to see her son sharing the stage last week with Gov. Gray Davis of California as they touted the legislative feat of passing four major school reform bills in just over 60 days--a blink of the eye in legislative terms here.

As the charismatic speaker of the California Assembly, Mr. Villaraigosa was the chief lieutenant in charge of steering the bills through that chamber in time to meet the governor's ambitious deadline of March 30. In addition, the 46-year-old former teachers'-union organizer co-sponsored one of the most controversial pieces of the Democratic governor's reform package: a bill to create the first statewide teacher peer-review program in the nation.

"From my vantage point, the best person to assist teachers is another teacher who's demonstrated excellence," he said last week during an interview in his office at the Capitol here. While his embrace of high-profile issues is not out of character for the longtime political activist, that involvement has the added value of raising his profile for a possible run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001.

Asked if that was in his future, Mr. Villaraigosa said only: "I would be honored to run for mayor."

In the meantime, he has his plate full running the Assembly, which he hopes will take up legislation to bring more Advanced Placement courses into poor districts and, more importantly, to increase state aid to schools.

"I don't buy the idea that [the newly passed] bills are going to make our schools the best," he said. "That can't happen without spending more on schools. Anyone who doesn't believes that is selling snake oil."

Teacher Concerns

Before being elected to the California legislature's lower house, Mr. Villaraigosa was an area representative from 1987 to 1994 for United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members come from both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In that job, he helped organize union members and negotiate contracts.

At least one of his UTLA colleagues is not surprised by his success.

Wayne Johnson, the president-elect of the California Teachers Association and a former UTLA president, became close to Mr. Villaraigosa during the 1989 Los Angeles teachers' strike.

"During this time, he showed great ability as a speaker and organizer," Mr. Johnson said. "Everyone knew at this time he was really outstanding."

Then, in Mr. Villaraigosa's first try for public office, he was elected to the Assembly to represent northeast Los Angeles in 1994. He was easily re-elected in 1996. Aided by the constant turnover in the legislature caused by California's term-limit law that allows Assembly members to serve just three two-year terms, he became the Democratic whip in 1995 and then was tapped to be majority leader in 1997.

One of his biggest accomplishments during his first year as speaker in 1998 was co-sponsoring a $9.2 billion school construction ballot measure, which he marshaled through the legislature after such proposals had died in at least the two previous years. The measure was approved by state voters last fall.

Unlike some measures that he says he had little to do with but still received credit for, Mr. Villaraigosa acknowledged that he doesn't mind accepting credit for the construction aid. "I was the engine behind the bond," he boasted.

More recently, the father of four children and husband of an elementary school teacher found himself behind the incoming governor's plan to mandate a statewide program under which veteran teachers would evaluate their peers who had been given poor job-performance reviews.

Powerful Memories

His former colleagues in the state teachers' unions opposed the bill largely on the grounds that it was mandatory rather than voluntary. But Gov. Davis was not about to budge on that point, and it was up to Mr. Villaraigosa to make that point clear to other legislators and the union lobbyists who approached him.

"I'm sympathetic with them and, in the best of all worlds, we would have a program that's voluntary," he said. "But we're in a crisis and have to push as hard as we can to impact reform."

The plan that passed last week essentially creates a mandated program because it severely penalizes school districts that fail to negotiate a peer-review plan by withholding state teacher-training funds. It gives districts two years to implement a plan before aid is withheld.

"He was very amenable to amendments," Mary Bergan, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, said of Mr. Villaraigosa's attitude toward the teacher issues. She added, however, that the speaker's hands were tied because "the governor took a very personal interest in all this."

Observers say Mr. Villaraigosa has been successful in large part because he is in an extremely powerful position and because he is working with a Democratic governor, unlike last year, when Pete Wilson, a Republican, was still the state's chief executive. Still, Mr. Villaraigosa deserves credit, they say, for being an accessible and tireless manager who also knows his stuff, especially on education.

A 'Personable Guy'

"I'm a real fan of his," said Bob Wells, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. "I've been impressed with his ability to become a statewide leader and not just be a Los Angeles person. I've been impressed with his support of public schools. It clearly is part of his agenda."

Gerald C. Hayward, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an education think tank based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, added: "He's a very personable guy. He has learned that being a good, personable guy carries you a long way in politics."

Mr. Villaraigosa, who in his youth went back and forth between public and Roman Catholic schools, said his own experiences constantly remind him of the importance of good schools, teachers, and high expectations. He remembers as a young boy being told by a librarian that he could not check out a certain book because it was too hard for him. His mother eventually came to the library and had his son read to the disbelieving librarian, who, upon seeing his fluency, gave him the book.

Then there was his high school language teacher, Herman Katz, who challenged the promising youth to take a reading test so that he could be moved from the remedial-reading program in which he had been placed in a new school to an advanced reading course.

Sitting in his dark-paneled office with a stunning view of the Capitol grounds, Mr. Villaraigosa is transported back to the proud moment as he tells the story.

"That's why I'm passionate about low-performing schools and kids who people give up on," he said, bolting upright from his relaxed position on a couch to make his point. But being the husband of a longtime teacher, he also understands the challenges of raising the performance of students who are poor, from single-parent families, and who speak English as a second language.

"One of the things you get from that experience is that there are no silver bullets here ... just tough issues and tough solutions," he concluded.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 19

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Speaker's Odyssey: From L.A. Streets to Calif. Statehouse
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