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ANTONIO'S TEFLON COAT WEARS THIN.

Byline: EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

IF a month ago I dared to say that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could (not would) face a serious challenge for re-election in 2009, I would have been advised to seek professional help. But with one whiff of sex scandal, Tony's cloak of political invincibility has badly frayed at the seams. And his dubious love tryst with TV newscaster Mirthala Salinas is only one reason the campaign for the top spot at City Hall suddenly could turn into a real horse race in 2009.

First, there's a good crop of politically savvy candidates. All are consummate political insiders, with citywide name recognition, who can raise lots of cash and are not dogged by ethical questions.

This not-so-short list of potential rivals includes L.A. City Council members Herb Wesson, Eric Garcetti, Bill Rosendahl and Bernard Parks, as well as former California Assembly majority leader and now private attorney Bob Hertzberg. Parks and Hertzberg both gave credible showings in their primary joust with Villaraigosa in 2005.

But the candidate who could cause Villaraigosa to sweat the hardest on election night is City Controller Laura Chick. She has the same compelling political assets the others have, plus a reputation as a stickler for fiscal accountability.

The word that few dared to utter around City Hall about Villaraigosa's job performance before the Salinas go-round was "disappointing." There were only the barest of hints by the pundits and the press that there was far less to his political career than his much-ballyhooed press image suggested.

That performance should be judged on how well he's done on the big- ticket items of transportation gridlock, Los Angeles Police Department reform, the chronically underperforming public schools and gang violence. Villaraigosa made big promises to do something about each of these issues, and there were high expectations that he would actually make good on the promises. But two years later, L.A.'s streets and freeways are even more gridlocked, and there's no sign that City Hall has come up with a comprehensive, regional plan to unlock them.

The schools in South L.A. and East L.A. and parts of the San Fernando Valley are still just as underperforming. Though LAPD Chief William Bratton -- appointed by former mayor James Hahn, not Villaraigosa -- gets high marks on LAPD-reform efforts, the LAPD and the city are still saddled with a federal consent decree that mandates that the city spend even more millions to correct LAPD problems. There's no indication the Mayor's Office has taken a strong, pro-active leadership role in helping Bratton get the feds off the city's back.

There is also still no plan in place to deal with the root causes of gang violence in L.A. These crucial items are deal-makers for judging the effectiveness of a mayor. Villaraigosa has come up short in handling them. That almost screams for the challengers to toss down the gauntlet in the mayor's contest in 2009.

Tony's defenders repeatedly say that he can rebound from the Salinas affair. The election is two years away, they say, and that's an eternity for the mayor to get his life back on track and to show that he can do great things for the city. If nothing else, they say, he can bank on the public developing collective amnesia or simply forgiving his marital transgressions.

Normally that's true, if -- and this is the colossal if -- the wayward public official has generally been a public-policy success, a la Clinton, and there's the feeling that his political opponents are digging up dirt as part of a hit campaign. That's hardly the case with Tony.

Voters put a huge premium on something else, and that's character. A slew of GOP incumbents and contenders found that out in the November 2006 midterm elections. Democrats tossed the sleaze factor at the GOP, and it struck a loud chord with the voters.

It wasn't surprising. In countless elections, voters have repeatedly said that character means everything in how they look at a politician. They want an elected official that they don't have to subject to a polygraph test to know if he or she is telling the truth.

The ultimate irony is that the mayoral candidate who benefited mightily from the "pay-to-play" ethics scandal that tarred Hahn was Villaraigosa. His smash general-election victory over Hahn was helped considerably by the widely held public perception that City Hall was for sale to the highest bidder.

Now it's Tony's turn to show that he's got the stuff to overcome his personal stumbles. The boos that rained down on him from the crowd when he tried to speak at the debut of L.A. Galaxy hotshot David Beckham don't bode well for him. Recovery also doesn't mean staging showy, gimmicky P.R. stunts such as pushing a rake in the street and dripping a little sweat for the TV cameras.

It means doing the job that voters put Villaraigosa into office to do. If he can't, there are others who can. A real race to replace Tony in 2009 could be brewing.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 22, 2007
Words:844
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