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L.A. Mayor-Elect Antonio Villaraigosa

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Right before he was elected mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa stayed up for 24 hours walking the city he hoped to lead. Now he's wide awake and gearing up for the next four years. We're joined by the mayor-elect, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Congratulations.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor-elect, Los Angeles): Hello, Farai. Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Thank you. Well, let me ask you about this walk you took through Los Angeles. I mean, this is a city that lives in the public imagination in good and bad ways. What did you see on that final campaign walk through Los Angeles?--something that broke your heart and something that made you glad.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Well, first of all, let me tell you why I'm so proud to lead a city like Los Angeles. I say to people that Los Angeles is a city of America's hope and its promise. It's a city where we come from every corner of the earth here to make the American dream happen. It's a place where we come from every part of the United States to remake ourselves and to, you know, find our destiny, if you will. And I'm excited about Los Angeles because I believe in her. I believe in her destiny. I think that the fact that we have so many different people from so many parts of the world is a big reason why LA is the city of America's promise. And our ability to unite those people for a common destiny, our ability to get people to realize that a great city is a city where we're growing and prospering together--a great city is where we're focusing on ensuring that more people are participating in that American dream is a challenge that we face.

And so what I saw in those 24 hours and what I've seen over the years as a native Angelino is that our assets are precisely the fact that we're so different. There are so many different ethnic groups and racial groups in the city and our ability to make this work is what just makes me excited about the future.

In terms of the, you know--the challenges and negatives that you may have mentioned, there are many. You know, we have a school district where more kids drop out than graduate. We have the highest poverty rate in America, the dirtiest air, the worst traffic, the highest homelessness rate, the third lowest homeownership rate. We've got many challenges but none that the great people of the city can't overcome.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you, though, you talk about common destiny and bringing together a multiracial city. But as you were prepared to give your victory speech, some of your supporters were chanting, `Si, se puede,' or `Yes, we can,' which is a common Spanish chant at rallies and marches. And yet, even that small thing has seemed to set some people on edge, saying, `Villaraigosa is going to be the mayor of the Latinos, not the mayor of Los Angeles.'

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Actually, you should have seen--there were Latinos saying that. There were African-Americans, there were whites. I mean, people were--saying `Si, se puede,' is just a Spanish slogan. Although it is a--in Spanish, people use that to say that, `Yes, we can,' that it is possible, and it was interesting that you heard that chant and everybody saying it.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about the fact that the last Latino mayor of Los Angeles was Cristobal Aguilar in 1872. Why has it taken so long for there to be another Latino mayor of Los Angeles?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: I have no idea, but I don't want to be known as the Latino mayor. I want to be known as the mayor who happens to be Latino who made a difference. I ran to make a difference. Ultimately, while there is some excitement around the fact that I'll be the first, what I said is, I won't be the last. There will be many after me. The opportunity that comes with being the first is to be a model for the future, for those who come after you. And I believe that the mayor of the most diverse city anywhere in the world has to be a uniter, has to be someone that's comfortable in every community, has to be someone that represents all of us.

A lot ado was made about the fact that Tom Bradley 30 years ago was elected as the first African-American mayor of a big city. While we remember that now, what we especially remember was that he was effective, that he brought the Olympics, that he made big things happen, that he was there for 20 years, that he was a man who was a giant among public servants in America. And, so, yes, there will be a lot of hoopla around the fact that I'm the first, but focusing on that, frankly, hasn't been something that's at the top of my agenda.

I want to focus on the schools. I want to focus on addressing the gang and gun violence in our neighborhoods, which is not just a public safety issue but a public health issue. I want to focus on the challenges that we face and the many opportunities that--you know, that make up what LA's dream is all about.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask you specifically about schools and the intersection of schools and violence. Recently, we spoke with students at Jefferson High School where there'd been tensions between blacks and Latino, leading to a series of fights. Now do you actually have a plan to reduce and end the tensions, not just in that school but in other schools across the city?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Well, one of the things I've said is in a city as diverse as this, you know, diversity and tolerance have to be a part of every curriculum. We've got to promote the idea that harmony among racial and ethnic groups is key in a city like this. We need to have crisis management teams and mediation teams going into our schools when there are problems and where there are hot spots to ensure that young people have the skills, if you will, and the mechanisms to address conflict in a non-violent means. We need to have a zero tolerance for racial violence and enough police officers in our schools to not only protect the safety of young people of whatever race or ethnicity in our schools but also their safety in terms of passage to and from school. And so those are some of the things that we have to do.

We have many challenges. But I'll tell you, a lot has been made about some of the incidents of violence. And, yes, there are too many, but let's be clear. At Jefferson High School that you mentioned, there were two incidents, both of which had less than 200 kids--in a school of 3,600. There were two incidents in a school where for years there'd never been a problem. One of the things that happened when I went to Crenshaw High School and Washington Prep, the young people there said at Washington Prep, `You know, for years, for decades, we've been living together. We never see a camera there. We never see a radio station at our school,' even though they're African-American and Latino students making it every day, studying together, working together. We need to focus on the fact that, in many ways, things are working there as well and not just on, you know, the hot spots, if you will.

CHIDEYA: Let me get to another hot spot, however, LAPD; fatal shooting of a 13-year-old, officers firing more than 120 shots at an unarmed African-American man, both this year. Now this is your police force. What are your plans to achieve good policing?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: First of all, we have a great department, a department of many fine officers, many of whom put their lives on the line every single day for the public health and safety of the city of Los Angeles. And yet we've also had a history of problems, especially in the minority communities and the African-American communities. And so what I've said is, we've got to restore trust and confidence. We've got to expand community-based policing. The key is accepting the idea that a great department has to be a department that says no one's above the law, not a politician and not a police officer and not a parolee. All of us have to abide by the rule of law. And where an officer is not, they need to be held accountable.

CHIDEYA: We only have a little time left, but I want to ask you about your role in national politics. For better or worse, whether you like it or not, you are now seen as one of the leading figures in American politics. And as it comes to issues affecting the Latino community, whether it's immigration, the Real ID bill, immigrant worker visas, people are going to turn to you and ask what you think. How are you going to insert yourself into these debates, and what does Los Angeles need?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: First of all, as you know, I've been speaker of the California State Assembly. I was national co-chair of the John Kerry campaign, the co-chair of the Democratic Party Convention Platform Committee. I've been on the national scene for some time. I'm going to focus on my job as mayor of the city of Los Angeles. I recognize that I have a national role and national stature as the first and, more importantly, as the mayor of a big city, certainly. But I also understand that the best thing that I could do is to do my job, focus on the issues that we face here in Los Angeles. To the extend that I'm effective at doing that job, I'll have a national profile, but my focus is going to be Los Angeles. Make no mistake about that.

CHIDEYA: Again, congratulations and thanks for being on the show.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor-elect of Los Angeles.

Coming up, the Supreme Court is set to review the rights of disabled inmates. And can the names you give your children actually lower their test scores? Those stories on our roundtable next.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.
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