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L.A. Mayor-Elect Sets Sights on Future

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Los Angeles this week experienced some political history of its own with the election of its first Latino mayor in modern times. Antonio Villaraigosa beat out incumbent James Hahn with an impressive array of supporters. He won the Latino vote, he won the black vote, he won the white vote in one of the most diverse cities in the world.

Mayor-Elect ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Republican, Los Angeles): People are looking for respect. They're looking for reciprocity. They want to be included. You can't continue to leave so many people behind and wonder why you have the kind of friction and conflict that you have in the city.

MONTAGNE: We reached the mayor-elect yesterday morning, naturally in his car, parked in the heart of Hollywood. His black sedan sat just down the street from the famous Walk of Fame. LA's newest political star allowed that much is and will be made about how his election symbolizes the growing power of the Latino vote.

Mayor-Elect VILLARAIGOSA: Yes, this is historic, that I'm the first, but I'm a native Angeleno. My mother was born here, my grandpa got here a hundred years ago. I don't focus on my ethnicity as much as some do because I am the mayor-elect of a great city who happens to be an American of Mexican descent. I don't wear it on my sleeves. I'm proud of who I am, but the best thing I could do for the community that I've come from is to be an effective mayor. Because all the hoopla about being the first will, you know, kind of go away after some period of time, and then people are going to know--want to know about what you did.

MONTAGNE: Yes, though, curiously Angelenos ignored the current mayor's success in bringing down crime, a big issue in the last election. Instead, voters focused on improving education, the major issue this election. The LA mayor has no control over LA schools, but the mayor-elect told us he hopes to change that.

Mayor-Elect VILLARAIGOSA: I'd like to see specifically what they've done in Chicago and New York and have the mayor ultimately responsible for the quality of our schools and for achievement in our schools. You know, successful schools are smaller. Successful schools have parents and teachers who are making decisions in our schools about curriculum and budget. Successful schools are schools with a strong principal and schools where our children have high expectations.

MONTAGNE: Antonio Villaraigosa is a high school dropout himself, who went on to get a law degree and then become speaker of the state Assembly. This week a Harvard study reports only about half of Latinos and African-Americans finished high school in 2002, and that's not lost on the mayor-elect, reflecting on his past on the eve of his administration.

Mayor-Elect VILLARAIGOSA: I do see my story as a story of redemption. It's a story of someone who turned his life around and realized that it's OK to be angry, but at some point you've got to take responsibility for your life and make good choices. And I talk about the fact that I grew up in a home of domestic violence. I was on my own, you know, almost at seven years old. I mean, I was selling--shining shoes on Seventh and Broadway and Fifth and Broadway, selling the newspapers in front of the Olympic Auditorium. I've been working my whole life. And, yet, I had a mother of indomitable spirit who believed in her children, a woman so erudite and focused on education that she quoted Shakespeare and read, you know, Shelley and Keats, Dickens to her children out loud and focused on education. We all did well. And so I think young people need to see stories like mine and learn from them. And I would prefer that I didn't have as many pitfalls in the journey that I've been on, but they are what they are and I've tried to learn from them and grow from them.

MONTAGNE: Antonio Villaraigosa talking to us from his car at a street corner in Hollywood. His life does sound like a movie script which would run like this: Hard young man growing up in an East Los Angeles barrio, goes on to become the city's first Latino mayor since 1872, back when the City of Angels was a dusty little town of barely 6,000, now doing interviews with the national press while parked in the shadow of Mel's Diner, immortalized in the film classic "American Graffiti." After our interview, Antonio Villaraigosa steps out of his shiny black sedan and disappears into a crowd of reporters at the dawn of a new day in Los Angeles. He will be sworn in July the 1st.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.