Antonio Villaraigosa saunters into The Abbey as if he lives next door. He’s relaxed, comfortable in West Hollywood’s gayborhood, as if visiting this second family is second nature. And in his very tight race to be the next governor of California, Villaraigosa is counting on his friends in the LGBT community to pull through for him in the June 5 primary so he can vie with another LGBT hero, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But Villaraigosa concedes nothing in his embrace of marriage equality, Newsom’s signature 2004 historic moment for which he has won the hearts of many. In a recent 55-minute sit-down interview, Villaraigosa recalls the ease with which he vowed his early support for same-sex marriage.
It was 1994 and Villaraigosa was running for State Assembly from the 45th District that included Echo Park, Silver Lake, East Hollywood, and Highland Park. Eric Bauman, now the out Chair of the California Democratic Party, had just been elected president of Stonewall Democratic Club and was working to make it a key gay political organization in a year when radical right House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich was promoting the conservative “Contract with America.”
Villaraigosa—who was running against the closeted Brian Quintana—was brought to Stonewall seeking its endorsement by his cousin, John A. Perez, who then joined Stonewall himself. Villaraigosa was a progressive grassroots activist and organizer with a powerful personal story anxious to jump into politics.
Villaraigosa grew up in East LA during the 1950s and 1960s when sexism and homophobia pervaded the culture. “I think it’s prevalent in every community but in the Latino community, one could argue it was even more prevalent, more extreme in terms of sexism homophobia,” Villaraigosa says during a 55-minute interview.
“I grew up with a mom that was very progressive and a victim of domestic violence. I grew up in a home with alcoholism and a father who left three terrorized kids,” he says. “My mother was on her own and I watched her struggle to send us to school and get us the best she could. She emphasized education and keeping the family together. So I always had respect for strong women and I’ve been blessed to have strong women in my life.”
His grades fell in Catholic school after he was briefly paralyzed from the waist down from a benign tumor at 16 and was expelled after getting into a fight. But he found a passion—community organizing. “It started with the farm workers boycott at 15 years old, Villaraigosa recalls. “I never worked in the fields. I didn’t speak Spanish but I knew the workers had their right to a job with dignity and respect.”
It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. “And it was the challenge for the country to be all that held itself out to be. And I knew I had a responsibility, even at 15,” he says, noting that he got involved with or helped start a black union and United Mexican American students. He subsequently graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights after taking adult education classes and getting counseling from a teacher he’s never forgotten, Herman Katz, who paid for Villaraigosa to take his SAT college exams.
In 1968, Villaraigosa was a leader in the mass Chicano student walkouts in East LA demanding school reforms and an end to academic bias. Like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Villaraigosa read Saul Alinsky to learn how to be a more effective social change leader.
From community college in East LA, Villaraigosa transferred to UCLA, where he became a leader in MEChA, a Chicano empowerment movement. He graduated in 1997 with a BA in history and then tried his hand at law, but failed the bar exam. Nonetheless, his legal knowledge served him as an organizer with the United Teachers Los Angeles, and later, as president of the LA Chapter of the ACLU.
In 1987, it was his idea to merge his last name Villar with that of his new wife Corina Raigosa after their marriage.
“I think what being a part of that civil rights movement was all about was saying that the forefathers had it right where we’re all created equal—except they also had it wrong,” Villaraigosa says. “They said it only meant white men. And we wanted to include women and blacks and Native Americans and people who didn’t come from Europe and maybe weren’t the landed class. I think the Civil Rights Movement, in many ways, was part of that effort to make—as President Obama said—to make America a more perfect union, to make it all that it has held itself out to be.”
In 1994, he left the Metropolitan Transportation Board to which he had been appointed to run for the Assembly. “Back then, there weren’t a whole lot of people that had come out of community organizing.”
But it was his mother who taught him to eschew sexism and homophobia. “In the 50s, we lived in a Jewish, Mexican neighborhood with Japanese-Americans. My mother had everyone over for dinner and we would go to their homes,” Villaraigosa says, naming friends and family who might have been gay.
“We grew up very open,” Villaraigosa says. “So it wasn’t difficult for me when at Stonewall, as I’m walking out after they’ve interviewed me for an hour, someone asked me ‘Do you support gay marriage? I said, ‘Well, actually, I never thought about it’ because back then they weren’t talking about it. We talked about civil unions. I said, ‘Why not.’”
And in 1994, riding in the CSW Pride Parade with your children was deemed courageous. “But I wanted to live true to my values.”
Villaraigosa was elected to the Assembly, along with Sheila Kuehl, California’s first out legislator, and they instantly became allies, creating a gay caucus and working on legislation. Villaraigosa put his Speakership on the line to pass Kuehl’s Dignity for All Students bill, which failed but was later passed with help from Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.
“I think I became Speaker in no small part because I was a bridge-builder and uniter,” he says. “People forget, but back in the day, everybody was on their own side. So it was a big deal.”
In trying to find common ground, Villaraigosa would sometimes refer to his children and how his love for them was more important than their sexual orientation. And when gay adoption was discussed on the legislative floor, Villaraigosa would describe how his gay cousin John played with his kids, and how much they loved him.
Villaraigosa did more than talk and promise. In 2000, he became chair of the No on Prop 22 campaign, the effort to stop the anti-gay marriage Knight Initiative. He contributed $10,000 of his own money to the failed effort.
Villaraigosa ran for LA City Council in 2003 and then mayor in 2005. His second bloc of voters after Latinos for that historic election was the LGBT community, support he has never forgotten. But the elation of his shattering the electoral glass ceiling as the first Latino mayor in 130 years was deflated when he was discovered having an affair with a reporter. In 2007, his wife filed for divorce.
“People did feel deflated, demoralized,” he says. “When I had my affair outside of marriage, I think it let people down. And when we got divorced, people felt hurt. I took responsibility and I said I’m sorry. I was focused mostly on trying to heal my family….[and] I became almost maniacal in my effort to do my job over 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I was focused on the challenges ahead.”
As mayor, Villaraigosa tried to reform the school system, advocating for charter schools, which prompted progressive school educators and unions to scream. “First of all, I don’t support for-profit charters, which would be not public. I support public non-profit charters. And more importantly, I support free schools,” he says.
Villaraigosa says he got involved after he turned around and saw that “everybody certainly looks just like me. And I said the role of the first is to open up the door for the rest. And I knew that a big reason why so many people were serving me was that schools were broken. One out of three schools were failing,” he says. “I took on the schools and we went from a 44 percent graduation rate to 72 percent,” from the one in three failing schools to one out of 10.
“So when powerful interests voices on the other side said their number one priority was to pass a moratorium on charters,” Villaraigosa replied: “I want a moratorium on failing schools. Let’s celebrate successful schools.” In the end, “I was willing to say no to powerful interests,” though other powerful interests favoring charter schools, such as former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, now support him.
If elected governor, Villaraigosa intends to immediately call a special emergency legislative session to address the housing and homeless crisis. “I’ve always understood that to whom much is given, much is expected.”