In 1969, Cathedral High expelled him, the rebellious junior from East L.A. who led student protests, joined fist fights and held a 1.4 GPA. Last December, 29 years later, the small Catholic boys' school awarded its prodigal son a diploma, a class ring and a school jacket at an evening in his honor.
For Antonio Villaraigosa, 46, now speaker of the California State Assembly, the diploma from Cathedral was sweet vindication -- and, among his honors, he said, "maybe the most treasured, meaningful I've received so far."
Villaraigosa's long and unlikely journey from a tough barrio childhood to the second most powerful position in California government is a page out of the American myth.
The oldest son of a Mexican-American secretary and a Mexican immigrant who abandoned the family when Antonio was five, he credits the mother who believed in him, a teacher who recognized his potential and paid his SAT fees, and a university system that gave him a chance.
"The poster child for affirmative action," Villaraigosa calls himself. "I wouldn't be in this job today if I hadn't gone to UCLA in an era when the state and the university were taking a chance on kids like me."
Grateful for what he calls "the golden era, the California of opportunity" that gave him a chance to flourish, Villaraigosa has been a champion of educational opportunity since his election to the Assembly in 1994 and an outspoken advocate for public education.
By Villaraigosa's own account, the "crown jewel" of his legislative career is "and will always be" Proposition 1A -- the $9.2 billion bond measure to build and modernize California public schools, colleges and universities approved overwhelmingly by voters last November.
The largest education bond in U.S. history, it was a long shot when Villaraigosa was sworn in as 63rd speaker of the California Assembly just a little more than a year ago. Few political pundits thought it possible to devise a compromise agreement between diverse and conflicting interests and win the necessary support of two-thirds of the legislators.
"It was one of the most difficult things I was ever involved in negotiating," said Terry Anderson, who has worked for the state Senate for 19 years, currently as a legislative aide to Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton. "The interests were so entrenched, and there was so much money involved. Villaraigosa wanted it to happen, and he set up the dynamics to make it happen."
The speaker made the education bond his top priority, seeking to craft language that developers, local governments and educators and their unions could live with, as well as Republican legislators whose support was needed to put the measure on the ballot.
Recalled Stephanie Halnan, director of institutional advocacy for the University of California and a former educational consultant for the speaker: "In eight months, he was able to do something previously thought impossible."
With only 43 Democrats in the Assembly at the time and 41 votes needed to keep his speakership, Villaraigosa couldn't afford to make enemies. But, according to Halnan, he took that chance.
"Sometimes leading means stepping out in front before people are willing to go there, which is at your own peril," she observed. "When he stepped out on the comprehensive proposal for schools, saying, 'I support this proposal,' it was very controversial; it could have potentially caused a rift."
In a profession loaded with "type A" personalities, Villaraigosa is known as one of Sacramento's hardest workers. In the contentious world of politics, he's seen as a coalition builder,liked and respected even by his ideological opponents.
UC Regent Ward Connerly -- who successfully spearheaded the anti-affirmative action resolution SP1 in the Board of Regents and Proposition 209 at the ballot box and is taking the crusade to other states -- considers himself a "big fan" of Villaraigosa.
"He forges consensus without betraying his own convictions," Connerly said. "He's one of those politicians who talks about win/win so that no one feels butchered in the debate."
Accounts of Villaraigosa's inclusive political style include the generous -- some say too generous -- budget he granted members of the Assembly's Republican caucus and the right he gave them to name the vice chairs of Assembly committees.
"I don't believe they [the minority party] should be treated like a vanquished people," Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times.
When he loses an important battle, as when 209 became law, Villaraigosa typically responds with strategic pragmatism.
"It wasn't enough to criticize and vilify the other side," he said of the backers of 200. "At the end of the day, it's not enough to lament and wallow in defeat, but to do something about it."
Affirmative action once helped Villaraigosa through UC's doors. After Prop 209 outlawed those programs, he carefully weighed what he could do. One potential arena was the Board of Regents, where he is a member ex-officio.
"I could sit there and scream louder and obviously carry a bigger stick than most of the other individual regents, as speaker," Villaraigosa recalled. "Or, I could identify what we agree on. All the proponents of 209 said they agreed that we have to increase eligibility, that diversity's a good thing."
He decided "to challenge the proponents of 209 at their word -- that they were committed to leveling the playing field." The strategy was to focus on outreach programs that had a track record of success -- among them mentoring, tutorial, SAT preparation and advance placement programs. To those who argued that such initiatives might dilute the quality of the students entering the university, Villaraigosa talked about unequal access to SAT prep classes and high school honors and advanced placement courses, and the role of outreach in helping to level that playing field.
"I was able to convince people that some of those issues were important," said Villaraigosa. "I got unanimous support from the Board, including Ward Connerly and others."
Villaraigosa called on individual regents to support programs to increase access and eligibility. And, in top-level negotiations over the 1998‚9 state budget, he made outreach funding a condition for agreeing to the rest of the package.
In the words of UC President Richard Atkinson, then-Governor Pete Wilson ultimately signed "the best budget of the decade" for the university. It included $33.5 million in new money for UC outreach programs. Total support for these programs is expected to more than double the $65 million spent in 1997‚98, with more than $2.7 million going to Berkeley's programs.
At times, Villaraigosa also has devised his own direct outreach efforts. Last spring, after the UC campuses made their undergraduate admissions decisions under the new constraints of 209, he penned a letter urging underrepresented minority students accepted by Berkeley and UCLA to enroll.
In a public service announcement broadcast by hundreds of local stations in the state, he made a similar appeal.
"It was a brief message saying who he is and what his background is," recalled Executive Director of University Outreach Margaret Heisel, who heads up UC's system-wide efforts to get underrepresented students eligible for UC admission and to ensure their success once admitted.
"The effect was above and beyond individual students," Heisel said. "It was on the popular airwaves, a message the whole community heard -- not just the student, but younger brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents: 'This university belongs to you. Come be part of it.'"
by Cathy Cockrell
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