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LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the highs, lows and legacy of his mayorship

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) listens to questions from the audiences after he addressed a National Press Club luncheon January 14, 2013 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.  Villaraigosa spoke on
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) listens to questions from the audiences after he addressed a National Press Club luncheon January 14, 2013 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Villaraigosa spoke on "Immigration Reform: Now is the Time."
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A little more than three months remain in L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's final term in office. All this week, we've been examining what his legacy might be as he approaches the end of his eight-year tenure.  

RELATED: See all of KPCC's coverage of Villaraigosa's legacy as LA Mayor

KPCC's Patt Morrison sat down with Mayor Villaraigosa to talk about his leadership — and his love — of Los Angeles.

Interview Highlights: 

PM: How would do you think you will be graded on your time as mayor:
"I think the way this works is over time people will assess what you've done. It's hard to grade yourself, frankly, I think that's something the people get to do and I think they've done it. They reelected me once, I was voted in the first time. We've had the worst economic crisis since the '30s, so I'll let them make that assessment."

PM: On matters of substance where would you put yourself?
"We're safer than any time since 1952. There's been a 40-percent drop in violent crime since I've been Mayor. We've kept our promise and grown our police department to an all time high of 10,000 police officer.Gang crime is down markedly, and in Watts, an area that's seen it's challenges, there's been about a 48 percent drop in violent crime. I think in the area of education I had the audacity to say the Mayor should be involved in our public schools and in the last seven years we've doubled the number of schools at 800 and above in the academic performance index.

"In the area of the environment, a little-known fact, I signed on to Kyoto in July 2005 when I became Mayor. We're at 28 percent below Kyoto levels (reducing greenhouse gas level) that means that Copenhagen, London, Berlin and Toronto are ahead of L.A. We've created 650 acres of parks in the last seven years, so that you understand, in the 12 years before that we did 350 acres of parks. 

We've got the most far reaching effort to clean up a port in the world, 80 percent reduction in diesel emmissions from trucks. In the area of transportation, we're on track to double the number of rail lines in our County as the result of the passage of Measure R which I spearheaded. Downtown and Hollywood are back, in  fact back to levels we haven't seen probably since the 1950s." 

PM: The mayor in L.A. has a big title, but not the kind of power that mayors have in Chicago and New York. So what about that performance quality in office?

Whoever's the next mayor, I'm going to try to give them as much support as I can. Part of the challenge of leading this city [is that] we're not a city and county both. like New York. We have a  very powerful city council […] We don't run the schools the way they do in New York. And our transportation system is a county transportation not so much a city one. So it's herding cats all day long and using the bully pulpit, and not being able to push these things by edict.

I think for our future, we're going to have look at whether we shouldn't be a city and county both.

I think in order for L.A. to work better, the mayor should run the schools. Without question. Look, people defend this notion that we ought to elect school board members; we had a 14 percent turnout for this last school board election, and for the last mayor's race. I mean the fact is, the only person who has the wherewithal, if you will, to really push through these changes is a mayor.

PM: So the mayor needs more power

I really believe that. I think the mayor should run our schools. I think that we should be a city and county both. Measure J passed in the city of L.A. by more than 70 percent. But in the county, by a lower level. And so even though we had overwhelming support for Measure J, which would have accelerated our transportation program from 30 years into 10, we got 66.11 [percent of the vote] and it didn't pass.


PM: Why, in spite of all this that you've said, the shorthand sense of L.A. [is that] it's a city that's broke, that's broken. The pension system's in the red. The trees are trimmed once every 50 years. Our water system is 100 years old. Why, still, does it not function the way people think it should?

Look, I'll be honest. And I know you work for that paper. But the newspaper of record in this town doesn't cover City Hall the way that you see in most towns.You know, I was with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cory Booker. They couldn't believe that the mayor of L.A. is almost never on the front page of this newspaper. Good or bad. The fact is, you hear a lot of talk about how bad things are; there's a lot of great things that are happening in this town, and that's one of the things that contributes to the malaise and the lack of participation. It's an abomination, an absolute abomination that we had a 14 percent turnout for mayor. When I ran, I thought it was a pathetic turnout -- I think it was 36 percent. But 14 is unacceptable.

On pension reform

You probably don't know and you work for that newspaper of record, that… when we went from 6 percent to 11 percent [employee pension contributions], that's the most far-reaching effort in the nation. There is not another city that went for current employees from 6 percent contribution from employees to 11. We passed the most far-reaching new pension reform -- much further than what the governor did at the state level... 

PM: Yet why was that necessary in the first place? There were raises in mid-2005, mid-2006. So...

Yes, I've said I wouldn't have done that if I had known that we were going to go into the worst recession. But let's correct the record here. The biggest reason that pensions are a problem — not just in the city of L.A., not just in California, but in virtually every city, every school district around the country — was that the economy went southward. And because, the truth of the matter is, they're no longer sustainable. Employees have to pay a lot more. I've had the courage to tell our employees that. 

When we passed our new retirement system, there's no other city — not New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco — who have done that. Only San Diego and San Jose have tried. And everybody says that they're going to get overturned in the courts because they did it by initiative and not in the way that we did it. 

PM: Why are you here right now instead of getting ready for a Senate confirmation hearing on a cabinet post? 

[Laughs] You know, can I tell you something? I really want to finish this job. I want you to understand. Your listeners can't look me in the eye the way that you can. I'm so grateful to the people of this town that gave me this job. I never thought in my wildest dreams — When I was growing up in this town, I didn't even know what was in City Hall, much less that I'd ever be the mayor of this great city. I want to finish my job.

Some people think I'm doing a good job; some people don't. But I want to finish it. I want to finish as much of what we started as we can. I want to make the tough decision to balance our budget, particularly now after the sales tax [Measure A] didn't pass. I want to be around for a number of things.

We're focused on working as hard as we can until I'm out of here. And then I'm riding into the sunset, my friend.