Friday, August 04, 2006

Antonio’s lessons from Arnold's Sophomore Jinx

One month into Antonio Villaraigosa’s second year as Mayor of Los Angeles, it is become clearer every day just how closely tied his political fortunes are tied to those of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And just like the once-popular Governor, Los Angeles’ charismatic leader appears headed into a sophomore slump.

Political pundits are already pondering a partisan fracas in 2010 between California’s two high-profile Mayors—San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa. For that to happen, however, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger must win re-election and each of these presumptive candidates must avoid falling into a trap which could endanger their political careers.

Like Governor Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles’ Mayor can energize a room just by walking into it—and like Arnold, Antonio has treated governing more like campaigning to a greater degree than any of his predecessors.

For Arnold, that meant rockstar-type rallies in shopping mall food courts were his means to deliver his message; for Villaraigosa, word is his schedule consists of 16-hour days criss-crossing a city that is larger than several countries!

But just like voters grew tired of the Governator’s antics after about a year, Los Angelenos are beginning to grumble about how exactly their Mayor can go about governing the City—let alone the school district as he proposes to reform—when he’s constantly on the move.

And if school reform sounds familiar, it was school reform which did in Governor Schwarzenegger in 2005…and if he is not careful, it may do Mayor Villaraigosa in as well in ’06.

What both Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa have forgotten is that in California, education policy has nothing to do about “the children”. Nope, in California, “education” policy and “education” spending are about protecting and expanding the influence of the teachers’ unions.

Since making school reform a top priority for his administration, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa never quite explained exactly how he planned on fixing Los Angeles’ schools—until his State of the City address earlier this year. In that speech, Antonio laid out a series of improvements to classroom environments, parent involvement and mayoral takeover of the district.

Only the latter—Mayoral control—survived by the time Villaraigosa took his “reform” proposal to Sacramento, however, taking control of the Los Angeles Unified School District away from a Board of Education bought and paid for by the United Teachers of Los Angeles was not in the cards in a State Legislature bought-and-paid-for by the State’s powerful labor movement.

Unlike Schwarzenegger, who would have taken his fight “to the people”, Villaraigosa returned to his M.O. from his days as Assembly speaker—forging a compromise that was so meaningless that no one could object to it. Whilst shuffling the deckchairs between City Hall and LAUSD headquarters, the bill—AB 1831 (Nunez)—did nothing to, you know, actually improve education.

What Villaraigosa did not expect was that billionaire Eli Broad, then an influential business group,* would oppose the watered-down “reform” on account of it doing nothing for the kids.

Now Antonio’s bill is sitting in Sacramento, and the clock is ticking for it to get approved by the State legislature—but there’s a hitch. Republican legislators are calling for a vote to be included in the package—and the Legislative Counsel suggests that one may be needed even before reforms can start.

Antonio remembers what happened when Arnold took on the teachers’ unions and “let the people decide,” and has been reticent to push for a ballot measure on school reform—but he may be forced into a vote, pulling him into the same trap as the Governor. That’s some sophomore jinx!

* For full disclosure, VICA, the business group referenced, is a client of my company, and the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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