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After One Of L.A.'s First Latino Mayors, Who Will Follow?


Los Angeles is getting ready to elect a new mayor, and the field is down to two: city comptroller Wendy Greuel and city councilman Eric Garcetti. Now, while Garcetti speaks often of his Mexican ancestry on his father's side, neither candidate is seen as a product of L.A.'s Latino community or political establishment.

And this is notable because of all the attention paid to the current mayor's background when he came to office. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Eight years ago, when Antonio Villaraigosa was elected as L.A.'s first Latino mayor in modern times, there was a lot of fanfare. After all, Los Angeles has one of the largest Latino populations in the U.S. But today, sitting comfortably in his large, airy office at city hall, Villaraigosa still doesn't like the label of Latino mayor.

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I bristled only because, from the beginning, what I've said is in this, the most diverse city anywhere in the nation and maybe the world, we need the bridge builders, the coalition builders.

SIEGLER: Part of Villaraigosa's legacy will be that he was one of the city's first Latino politicians able to build a broad coalition in this vast, diverse city. He says that's what will make any future mayor successful here, whoever they are. And Villaraigosa doesn't feel it was his job to groom a successor.

VILLARAIGOSA: I don't feel like, somehow, that I had a responsibility to nurture a particular individual. What I do feel like the responsibility is to be a model for others.

SIEGLER: But Villaraigosa also had personal problems during his tenure that political observers here say may have affected his ability to groom an up-and-coming Latino star. At UCLA, the dean of the school of public affairs, Frank Gilliam, says those problems alienated Villaraigosa from some of the city's Latino political establishment, and he says there may be other reasons. It's not that great of a job.

FRANK GILLIAM: Being mayor of Los Angeles, while sometimes it lets you go to the Oscars or to the NBA Finals, is not quite that glamorous, and comes with much less power than being mayor of Chicago or being mayor of New York.

SIEGLER: Gilliam notes that several up-and-coming Latino politicians here have been setting their sights instead on the more powerful city council, or Congress. Also, it's no secret that L.A. has a lot of problems. Crime is down, but schools are still struggling, and the budget is deep in the red.

GILLIAM: I guess no matter what the gender or race of the candidate, if one were an enterprising, young elected official, one might think twice about being mayor of Los Angeles.

SIEGLER: It may also come down to timing.

ARTURO VARGAS: And, in fact, there are a number of Latino political figures in the city of Los Angeles today who did take a hard look at that race and decide that the timing for them wasn't right.

SIEGLER: Arturo Vargas heads the L.A.-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. He says there are some consequences to all of this.

VARGAS: What we're hearing is that Latinos aren't feeling as if their concerns are being debated.

SIEGLER: That sentiment is echoed by 30-year-old Emanuel Pleitez, who ran unsuccessfully in the crowded mayoral primary last month.

EMANUEL PLEITEZ: And then, this is the office. As you can see, it's almost clean.

SIEGLER: Pleitez and a handful of remaining staffers are packing up their campaign office in the Boyle Heights neighborhood east of downtown. It's where Villaraigosa grew up and Pleitez once worked as an aide for the mayor. He says it's still hard for young, Latino politicians to rise up out of poor neighborhoods like this and create that broad appeal his former boss had.

PLEITEZ: Now that we had Antonio Villaraigosa, it should be easier if Antonio Villaraigosa did more things to get more Latinos in power. And I can't say he didn't, but I could say that he could've done more.

SIEGLER: L.A. votes for its next mayor in a runoff election May 21st. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.