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New Los Angeles Mayor Faces Reality of Governing


Antonio Villaraigosa won on an ambitious platform of campaign promises. Among other things, he pledged to fix the city's troubled school system and to expand light rail and subway service. Of course, that costs money, and LA, like most cities, doesn't have a lot of extra cash right now. Jack Pitney is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He says the mayor's office in Los Angeles isn't as powerful as in other major cities, and Villaraigosa will have obstacles to overcome.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): Take the issue of education. The mayor-elect says he wants to do a lot about education; that's admirable. But the city government of Los Angeles has very little to do with education. The LA Unified School District is a separate entity. And, in turn, the LA Unified School District has to answer to the state of California. And in the state of California, in turn, we have powers separated among a secretary of Education, a superintendent of public instruction and a state school board. It's very, very difficult to tell who is responsible for what in California education.

NORRIS: One of the big applause lines while he was on the campaign trail was when he talked about expanding transportation. Is there really a lot of support for that throughout the city and in the City Council?

Prof. PITNEY: Well, there's support in general for improved transportation, kind of like the old joke: Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. The number one problem is cost. Number two problem, anytime you're talking about any kind of capital project, you're talking about displacement, you're talking about construction delays. And, at that point, the specifics become the stumbling block.

NORRIS: Now we've talked about some of the major campaign promises. I want to discuss with you, if I can, some of the problems and the challenges that Villaraigosa will face. One big thing is corruption. He campaigned against corruption in the Hahn administration, yet he's got a few problems of his own, problems that are still unresolved. Could you tell us about this fund-raising investigation that's still ongoing and how it might impact his administration?

Prof. PITNEY: Well, there's a question about some of the sources of campaign funds, a story, for instance, about contributors from out of state. And when they were contacted by journalists, they were not even clear about what the race was for. The trouble is in contemporary politics, it takes a lot of money to get elected to any major office, and inevitably there are ethical concerns about the way that money was raised and who expects what kind of favors in return.

NORRIS: Villaraigosa has said that he's not just a fixer but that he's a healer. And in a city that is very much a city of fiefdoms, a city with deep racial divides, he said that he's uniquely qualified to unite Los Angeles. What's going to be the measure of that?

Prof. PITNEY: The measure will be if people in Los Angeles' far-flung neighborhoods see the city government as something close to them. The problem is evident when you look at a map of Los Angeles. The city, really, doesn't even have a shape. It's a bug splat of a city with arms and necks flying out in all directions. People in various areas of the city see very little in common with people in other areas of the city. It's geographical, it's racial, it's class-based, ethnic. His challenge will be physically just to keep visiting the various parts of the city and make people feel involved, make them feel that they are part of the city of Los Angeles and not part of a disconnected neighborhood.

NORRIS: Jack, thanks for talking to us.

Prof. PITNEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: Jack Pitney is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.