Standing in front of the klieg lights and news cameras at the National Press Club Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fielded a tough question.
"What words of encouragement would you offer immigrant youth in the D.C. area to fully engage and appreciate the fundamental values and traditions in America?" National Press Club President Theresa Werner asked.
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Villaraigosa paused for a sip of water, furrowed his brow, and leaned into the microphone.
"Reach for the stars and follow your dream," he said, with all the sincerity of a Hallmark card.
"Be the change you want to see in the world. Don't lose your sense of the possible. Make sure you keep the cycle of humanity moving forward, by when you get through a door; someone gets through that door after you. Those are some of the things I would say to them."
That brand of trenchant analysis made the Los Angeles mayor a reliable surrogate for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Now he’s been called up again to support the administration’s immigration and gun control agendas.
At the sold-out National Press Club luncheon (the $22 tickets for Press Club members, $35 for non-members, included cupcakes sporting the seal of Los Angeles), Villaraigosa called for "real" and "germane" immigration reform.
"We've created an immigration system that is long on enforcement but short on opportunity … a system that happily capitalizes on the labor of millions of undocumented men and women but then refuses to extend them the basic rights and privileges that most of us take for granted," he said.
Villaraigosa outlined a six-point plan for immigration reform, which would include requiring undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes and pass a background check.
It also includes conservative-sounding ideas such as proving proficiency in English before receiving citizenship and requiring employers to use an identification system to stem the hiring of undocumented laborers.
The National Press Club was only one of Villaraigosa’s recent stops in Washington. After briefly flying back to L.A., where he attended a press conference with several Southern California mayors calling for stricter gun control, he was back in the nation’s capital Thursday for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
It is unclear if the mayor has found time in recent days to party with Charlie Sheen. According to Sheen, a 9/11 Truther, the two previously partied for hours in Cabo, Mexico, in a room full of booze and women. The mayor has avoided comment on Sheen's allegation.
"Let me get your perspective as an outsider, someone looking in at Washington," CNN host Wolf Blitzer said to Villaraigosa in one of the mayor’s six television spots this week.
Villaraigosa’s "outsider" status is hotly debated, considering he was the chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Villaraigosa himself said he was in the "inner circle" of the DNC during his National Press Club talk.
His role as chairman also provided the Washington Free Beacon with one of our favorite moments of 2012: Villaraigosa was tasked with the mission of changing the DNC platform to re-instate the words "God" and "Jerusalem"—which were conspicuously absent—through a contentious voice vote. Villaraigosa approved the platform change despite the loud boos signaling disapproval.
"I'll tell you, the one thing you get over time is that the world's a lot grayer than when you led a demonstration in college," he said at the National Press Club when asked what he’d learned in his career.
During his tenure as an organizer for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) at UCLA, Villaraigosa probably did not imagine he would one day be doing the Democratic Party’s dirty laundry. Such is the price of political ambition.
Villaraigosa’s political future is an open question. He is term-limited and must leave the mayor’s office in June. There has been speculation of a run for California governor. His name has been bandied about in discussions of possible Obama cabinet appointments, mostly for Transportation Secretary.
Current Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made no indications that he will leave, but there is no shortage of open positions in Obama’s second term cabinet: the president likely will have to appoint heads to the Departments of Interior and Energy, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Villaraigosa was peppered with questions about his post-mayoral plans during his press club speech, but the press got no more than his coy smile and clumsy deflections.
"When I'm asked [by the administration], I'll answer the question," he said.
Appointing Villaraigosa to a cabinet spot would solve Obama’s embarrassing diversity problem, but it would be a headache in ways both personal and professional.
Villaraigosa has already gone through a messy divorce stemming from adultery, and his administration has been riddled with accusations of nepotism, cronyism, and ethical lapses.
Villaraigosa’s daughter, Marisela Villar, landed a plum salary of $68,000 as a field representative answering constituent calls and arranging community meetings despite her apparent lack of degrees or qualifications.
An La Opinion article in February 2010 noted that Villaraigosa's call for job cuts in city departments did not include his own staff of 205 employees.
Perhaps that surfeit of workers is doing Villaraigosa's job for him. A 2008 LA Weekly article reported that, over a 10-week period, Villaraigosa spent only 11 percent of his time on direct city business. The paper noted he "frequently spends that limited time huddling with special-interest groups who have helped him attain higher office." The article dubbed Villaraigosa the "all-about-me mayor."
On second thought, maybe Villaraigosa is perfect for Washington.