I first met Antonio Villaraigosa a dozen years ago at an El Pollo Loco in the Miracle Mile. He was in the Assembly at the time and was contemplating his first run for mayor. He was brash and gutsy, proudly proclaiming his opposition to the death penalty and admiration for organized labor. And he was a little vain: He wore his suit perfectly, and one of my enduring memories of that morning was that he was miffed not to be recognized by the server.
We talked that day about his politics and personal life: his tough upbringing, his alienation from his father, his unusual last name. Twelve years later, Villaraigosa has been seasoned by his time in office. He's fought with his friends in labor, including the teachers union for which he used to work. Even his name has taken on a different shade. Once it was a symbol of his marriage: Corina Raigosa and Antonio Villar combined their last names to become the Villaraigosas. Now the name is an artifact of that failed union.
In some ways, Villaraigosa is exactly the same man as the one who first sought the mayoralty in 2001. He's charming and driven, as well as stunningly self-centered. He talks over people around him, listens inattentively. His adherence to his talking points can be embarrassingly transparent: In the first of our recent interviews, he said near the outset that the "last four years … have been humbling." From that point on, he used the word "humbled" or "humbling" 11 times before I stopped keeping track.
Villaraigosa still keeps a busy schedule, starting with an early-morning workout and often working late into the night. But he seems less frenetic now, less obsessively boastful than in those early years.
"The challenges in this environment are very sobering," he said, adding that while he keeps "an aggressively active pace," he's attempting to be more strategic and less ubiquitous. Where once he held several news conferences a day, now he's down to a few a week.
These past few years have sometimes been grueling. The mayor weathered a silly scrape over accepting free tickets to events — the vast majority were for gatherings he attended for ceremonial purposes — and, more memorably, he wrecked his marriage over an affair with a local television reporter. Understandably, he doesn't much like talking about his marriage, but he acknowledges his behavior hurt others and not just his wife. "People felt let down," he conceded. (For the past couple of years he's been in a relationship with another television reporter, Lu Parker, who was at Getty House when I met Villaraigosa there last week.)
Villaraigosa can be prickly; he once was so angry at an editorial I wrote that he challenged me to a debate, and he didn't speak to me for months after I wrote a column about the disappointment that many felt in him. But he's getting better about not taking criticism so personally. He's calmer, more self-deprecating, more reflective than when he first ran for this office. He's 58 now, and has grown up. Just a couple of weeks ago, he dropped off his youngest daughter at college, experiencing the bittersweet accomplishment of a UCLA alum installing his child at USC.
Is this the end of the political line for Villaraigosa? Some of his critics, and even some of his supporters, think so. They see him as damaged personally and saddled with a city so deeply in the hole that even if he governs effectively, it will be hard for him to run on his record. I'm not so sure.
Certainly, the past six years have had their setbacks for Villaraigosa, but as Gavin Newsom recently demonstrated, Californians are willing to forgive personal scandals. While mayor of San Francisco, Newsom had an affair with his campaign manager's wife, who also worked for Newsom. That came to light in 2007; three years later, he was easily elected lieutenant governor.
More important, Villaraigosa has come a long way on the strength of his ambition, and I don't see much evidence that it's suddenly gone into remission. For all his talk of humility, Villaraigosa likes to govern; he craves adulation, and it's hard to imagine him out of the arena for long. Looking ahead to his final two years as mayor, Villaraigosa remarked: "I'm not finished yet."
I believe that.