Antonio Villaraigosa and Blueprint Editor Jim Newton have known each other for 18 years. They first met at an El Pollo Loco on Wilshire Boulevard when Villaraigosa, the 63rd speaker of the California State Assembly, was preparing for his first campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. In the years since, Villaraigosa has run and lost that campaign, won a City Council race, then served two terms as mayor and, most recently, campaigned unsuccessfully for governor.
For nearly two decades, Villaraigosa and Newton have been talking about government and politics in California. (Newton can be emphatic; Villaraigosa refers to these conversations as his “beatings.”) Until this interview, however, all of the conversations have been conducted against the backdrop of Villaraigosa’s political ambitions. Having finished out of the money in the governor’s race this year, Villaraigosa was more reflective during this discussion, even pensive. Once prone to talking fast and hurling assurances, in this session he was quieter and more deliberate.
Throughout his campaigns for mayor, Villaraigosa made grand promises. He delivered on some – huge transportation projects are still being built with money from a sales tax measure he supported. Other times, he came up short. In this interview, he mentions planting “a million trees.” The reference is to an ambitious goal he set and did not meet. But no one denies his heart or courage. He is, among other things, the rare California politician willing to question any aspect of Proposition 13, the property tax limitation passed in 1978 that fundamentally restructured California finances.
Villaraigosa has been a force in state and local politics for a generation. Here, in his modern home overlooking Beachwood Canyon, he reflects.
The Villaraigosa-Newton conversation
Blueprint: Do you think that the politics of California are producing the kinds of leaders that California needs?
Antonio Villaraigosa: I don’t think it has as much to do with politics as with society. When we fail to educate broad swaths of the public, when the poor and disenfranchised are almost invisible, politics are going to produce leaders who don’t reflect the needs and aspirations of the changing face of California. The broad swath of California has been left behind.
BP: What can we do to change that?
AV: I come from that swath of the left-behind. I got an education, and it changed my life. I believe strongly that improving our public schools, making them places of excellence, the best anywhere in the world, is critical to meeting America’s promise of unlimited opportunity if you’re willing to work for it.
BP: I grew up here, too, in northern California. And I remember a time when people would move to California to get their kids into public school here. It was part of the magnet that drew people to this state. What happened?
AV: Well, I think a couple of things. Proposition 13 happened. We took away the tools we needed to fund our schools. But around that time, really since the mid-1960s, a changing demographic happened. People increasingly didn’t have their kids in public schools, so they wouldn’t fund them. And the reason why Proposition 13 was so critical is that it required a two-thirds vote to increase taxes. It wasn’t just Proposition 13 itself. That’s a misnomer.
BP: There’s something strange to me about the fact that Proposition 13 imposed a two-thirds requirement for tax increases when it did not pass by two-thirds.
AV: It’s hypocritical and defies logic.
So, those two things have produced today’s reality. When I was going to public school, we were in the top five in per-pupil spending, and we had the best public schools in the country. Now we’re close to the bottom in both.
I’ve argued that you can’t just throw money at the problem. You have to connect money with results. But money is part of the solution. There are demagogues on both sides. One side says it’s only money, and the other says money has nothing to do with it.
BP: If the politics of Proposition 13 were not as loaded as they are, how would you change it?
AV: First, I don’t think we should change it with another initiative [some critics of Proposition 13 have backed an initiative to create a so-called “split roll” that would treat business property differently than residential real estate]. During the campaign, that didn’t score points with some. . . . The reason is that the whole tax system is broken, and the opportunity that comes with any system that is this broken is to fix the whole thing.
It’s broken at the top, where the upper income tax is the highest in the nation because of the way it taxes capital gains. That produces a feast-or-famine revenue paradigm because a small group of people pay those taxes.
Secondly, because of Proposition 13, we have one of the lowest property tax rates. . . . And corporate entities can sit on property a very long time and pay very little in taxes. When Proposition 13 was sold to the public, it was sold on the premise that homeowners were paying too much. At the time, homeowners paid 40% of the overall property tax, and corporations were paying 60%. Now it’s the other way around.
BP: It’s truly one of the unanticipated consequences of Proposition 13.
AV: Right. And, let’s be honest, they [corporations] are the biggest funders of any effort to oppose a change.
Then, finally, we need to discuss a service tax. The service economy is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the overall California economy. There are a majority of states that tax services to some degree or another.
So I think you need to fix the whole thing.
BP: That’s a big task.
AV: Yeah, it is. . . . When I used to do leaders lectures . . . , I talked about swinging for the fences. When you’re a kid and you get up to bat, sure, you want to get on base. But let’s be honest: Everybody’s thinking about hitting a home run. When you’re playing football, you’d love to get four yards, five yards, ten yards. But you’d really like to score a touchdown.
Leadership has to be about being bold enough to aspire to do big things. Sometimes you’re going to fail. A million trees….
BP: I’m glad you said it, not me.
AV: Hold it. We got 400,000. Bloomberg did a million trees. He didn’t get there. Denver did a million trees, Houston did a million trees. None of them got there. We did six times more than any administration in an eight-year period. We didn’t do a million trees, but we aspired to it.
So, yes, the tax system is a big, tall order. But it’s so broken across the board. The feast-or-famine, the uncertainty of long-range revenue projections – they make this important. It’s not going to be easy, but it is something that is really, really important.
And I think at some point fixing the two-thirds vote is critical. [Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds vote of the relevant body to approve any tax increase, state or local.] Our democracy is based in part on the idea of preventing the tyranny of the majority. But here you almost have a tyranny of the minority.
The vast majority of people who need services and a safety net are actually unable to achieve their democratic aspirations.
BP: Tell me what you think are the biggest challenges that this state needs to face in the near and long term.
AV: The biggest challenge in both the near and long term is that of creating an economy that works for more people. When I say that, I will often look at a reporter or a photographer and say: “In the last 10, 20, 30 years that you’ve been working at this job, has life gotten easier or more difficult?”
BP: Well, if you’re asking reporters, the answer’s obvious: It’s not pretty out there.
AV: Yeah. The answer is always that it’s gotten more difficult. So, from my vantage point, figuring out how to make the economy work for more people is critical.
But a key to the income inequality and the poverty that results from that broken economy is an educational system that works. They’re connected. Jobs today require a higher level of knowledge and skills than they did in the past, and we’re not preparing enough people for that. The children of the wealthy and the upper middle class are being trained, but the children of the poor and the lower middle class really don’t have the same access to a great education that the rest of us do.
BP: Do you think California is harmed by the almost complete insignificance of the Republican Party here?
AV: I chaired the Democratic Party convention in 2012, and I am a Democrat, but I did support the top-two primary, and I did because I saw what happened when I was mayor [Los Angeles elections are non-partisan, and the top-two finishers for city office, regardless of party, face one another in a runoff if neither gets more than 50% in the first round]. I had to appeal to a broader cross-section of the public. . . . I spent a lot of time in the San Fernando Valley. I knew that it was the epicenter of the middle class. I had to spend time there, and I did. I had to listen and speak to a broad, cross-section of people, many of whom didn’t agree with me. It does moderate you.
BP: What do you think about term limits and the effect that they’ve had on politics and governance in California and L.A.?
AV: I’ve historically been against term limits. I think we already have them. They’re called elections.
With gerrymandering and the other machinations that both parties have employed, I understand why some people support limits. But I don’t think it works, particularly for legislators.
Having said that, if you remember, when the [Los Angeles City] Council sought to move from two to three terms . . . they needed my help and my support. They wanted me to get behind it, and I did. They offered to extend term limits for the mayor. . . . I said no. I said no for two reasons. I said it looks self-serving for the mayor to do that. I won’t be able to campaign on your behalf in the way I could if it’s not affecting me. And I also believed that for a chief executive, the first two terms are usually the best.
BP: I have a theory about term limits – that by encouraging elected officials to think in a shorter term, the limits have contributed to the pension crisis, that officials don’t want to give raises because that affects current spending but instead favor pension increases because those will come due during someone else’s term of office.
AV: I think that’s true. . . . There’s a tendency to say: “Not my problem. It’s somebody else’s problem.”
BP: Do you think California can be successful in holding off President Trump in areas such as immigration and climate change? Is there room for an effective resistance out here?
AV: That word “resistance” doesn’t resonate with me. We’re going to chart our own path. We focus so much on Trump and forget the axiom that people want to know what you’re for, not what you’re against.
Let’s focus on poverty and housing, health care and education. The best way to convince people that California’s path is a brighter one for Californians is to do something about the quality of life here.
BP: What’s next for you?
AV: I don’t see another race in the cards. I actually was excited about taking on a broken tax system and fixing a school system that doesn’t work for the poor in the way that it could and should in a great and generous California. . . . I revel in crisis and really want to tackle big challenges. I saw governor as that opportunity.
One door closes. Another opens.