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Antonio Villaraigosa used the word dream 12 times during the 30-minute speech that marked his election as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century.
Blending the idealism of the 1960s, when all things seemed possible, with the realism of the 21st century, when it's clearer what is possible, Villaraigosa puts his life story on the line as proof of what can be accomplished no matter how hard it seems.
The outspoken 52-year-old former labor organizer who was once arrested for assault has spent his career defying stereotypes and working compromises that cross party and ethnic lines.
"Leadership is not about being afraid to lead or make mistakes," says Villaraigosa of his straight-talking style. For too many of his colleagues, he says, "the whole culture is about being safe and risk averse."
As mayor, he has promised to plant 1 million trees, to start building a subway to the ocean, and to take over the city's ailing school system, from which approximately 60 percent of Latinos and 50 percent of African-Americans drop out. "Antonio doesn't do politics for the purpose of political expediency," says Fabian Nunez, speaker of the California state Assembly. "His thinking is guided by what's in his heart, gut, and head."
But he understands reality, as he showed during his days as a skilled bipartisan negotiator in the bruising halls of the state legislature. Before taking on the high-risk headache of the school system, he's carefully building support by collaborating with parents, teachers, and education officials.
"Antonio is constantly sweeping the horizon for the right answer," says Henry Cisneros, a member of Bill Clinton's cabinet and former mayor of San Antonio. "The role of leadership is to redefine the center," adds Villaraigosa, a fan of Clinton's. "Nuance is required to get broad support."
Villaraigosa's early life was hardly nuanced. The son of a Mexican immigrant, he watched his alcoholic father abuse his mother, who then left when Antonio was 5. He was shining shoes at the age of 7. Somehow, despite dropping out of high school, getting into a scrape with the law, fathering two daughters out of wedlock, and overcoming partial paralysis from a tumor, Villaraigosa emerged with degrees from UCLA and a local law school. He then joined the civil rights and labor movements, removed his tattoos, and married a public school teacher.
"Antonio has a real human story," says Martin Ludlow, a former top aide to Villaraigosa, "and this makes him someone we can truly touch, feel, and connect with."
Early success. He's made use of the lessons. "I'm a guy who has fallen down my whole life," says the mayor. "But I've gotten up and wiped the blood off my knees every time."
Villaraigosa's political career was characterized by early success that led to the speakership of the California Assembly. But he failed when he ran for mayor the first time in 2001. "I thought I could win by inspiring people," recalls Villaraigosa, who beat incumbent James Hahn in a 2005 rematch. "I learned that I had to fight back and not let people characterize me. I looked weak . . . I needed to be able to demonstrate that I was tough enough."
For now, Villaraigosa seems plenty strong. And his leadership of a city in which nearly half the population is Hispanic may have transcontinental heft. "There are public servants, and there are public servants who are stars," says Jack Valenti, the legendary movie industry lobbyist who knows how both coasts work. "Antonio is a star . . . . He is an enticing man."
BORN: Jan. 23, 1953 EDUCATION: UCLA; People's College of Law FAMILY: Married, four children CAREER: Labor organizer; California Assembly speaker; L.A. councilman ON LEADERSHIP: "Too many politicians have a fear of failure. My life has shown that I'm not afraid to fail, that success is achieved by those who don't give up."
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