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Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa
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Antonio Villaraigosa Biography

Former Mayor of Los Angeles

Antonio Villaraigosa Date of birth: January 23, 1953

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  Antonio Villaraigosa

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The man who would become the 41st Mayor of Los Angeles was born Antonio Ramon Villar, Jr. A third-generation American on his mother's side, his grandfather immigrated from Mexico early in the 20th century. Young Antonio Villar grew up in City Terrace, one of the neighborhoods making up the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles. His childhood was a difficult one. His father drank to excess and became violent when drunk. Villar Sr. left the family when young Antonio was five years of age, leaving his mother to raise Antonio and his three siblings on her own. Although the family lacked many material comforts, Mrs. Villar instilled in all her children a respect for education and hard work, and a keen sense of justice and social responsibility. Young Antonio delivered newspapers and worked at other odd jobs to help support the family. At 15, he left his job at a Safeway grocery store to join a picket line supporting the United Farm Workers, who were leading a boycott against the growers of table grapes in California. Although he knew little of their cause at the time, he identified with the farm workers and their struggle. He later participated in the organized walkouts of Mexican-American high school students, protesting discrimination in the school system and the larger society.

Antonio Villaraigosa Biography Photo
At age 16, a benign tumor in his spinal column temporarily paralyzed him. When he recovered and returned to his Catholic high school, he was no longer able to participate in organized sports and became increasingly alienated from school, his peers and society in general. By his own account, suppressed anger from his father's abusive behavior contributed to his violent temper, and the teenage Antonio increasingly responded to frustration and difficult situations by lashing out violently. Expelled from Cathedral High School, he transferred to a public high school but quickly dropped out again when he was assigned to vocational classes rather than the college preparatory courses he had taken at Cathedral. He continued getting into fights and appeared to be caught in a downward spiral. His mother eventually persuaded him to return to school, where he caught the attention of a sympathetic English teacher, Herman Katz. With Katz's encouragement and support, he took extra classes in the evenings and graduated on schedule. He entered East Los Angeles College, where his grades improved and he was able to transfer to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

At UCLA, Tony Villar, as he was then known, was active in student politics and the movement opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. After graduating with a degree in history, he studied at the People's College of Law, but failed to pass the California bar exam. With his ambitions for a legal career on hold, he became a field representative and organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Over the next few years he won a reputation in labor circles as a gifted advocate. He became President of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, and of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1987, Antonio Villar married Corina Raigosa. The couple elected to merge their surnames, and would henceforth be known as Antonio and Corina Villaraigosa.

Antonio Villaraigosa Biography Photo
As a rising star in the labor movement, Antonio Villaraigosa became a familiar face to the city's elected officials. In 1990, he was appointed to serve on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, where he worked alongside the elected County Supervisors, as well as the Mayor of Los Angeles and members of the city councils of Los Angeles and neighboring cities. Villaraigosa's friends in labor and local government had long urged him to consider running for public office, and the introduction of term limits to the California state legislature in the 1990s created just such an opportunity. In 1994 he entered the race for an open Assembly seat representing much of Northeast Los Angeles. Although he was opposed by the outgoing Assembly member and his allies in Sacramento, Villaraigosa won an upset victory in the Democratic primary and was easily elected in the general election.

In Sacramento, Villaraigosa quickly joined his party's leadership team. In his first term, he was named Assistant Majority Leader (or whip) and by the end of his term was serving as Majority Leader. In 1998, he was elected Speaker of the Assembly. Term limits forced him to leave the Assembly in 2000; the following year he made his first run for Mayor of Los Angeles. He came in first in the initial round of voting, but was defeated by fellow Democrat James Hahn in a runoff. Villaraigosa won election to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003, defeating the incumbent councilman. Mayor Hahn's firing of police chief Bernard Parks, an African American, cost the Mayor crucial support among African American voters, and Villaraigosa prepared for a rematch in 2005.

Antonio Villaraigosa Biography Photo
This time, Villaraigosa finished first in both the primary and the run-off elections, and on July 1, 2005, he was sworn in as the 41st Mayor of Los Angeles. Although the city was founded under Spanish rule and, along with the rest of California, was part of Mexico until 1848, Villaraigosa was the first person of Latin American descent to serve as mayor since 1872. His election was widely seen as an affirmation of the growing political power of Latinos, not only in Los Angeles and California, but in the United States as a whole.

As he had in the State Assembly, Villaraigosa took pains to build coalitions across ethnic lines, and increasingly across ideological divides as well. After taking office, he charged head-on at the city's most intractable challenges, including education and transportation, overcoming entrenched opposition within his own party. Almost immediately on taking office, he persuaded a number of the region's leaders to drop their opposition to a long-delayed expansion of the city's subway system.

One of his greatest challenges lay in improving the performance of the city's schools. He angered many of his old allies in the UTLA by seeking direct mayoral control over failing schools and limitations to teacher tenure rights. Although he failed to gain complete control over the Los Angeles Unified School District, much of which lies outside of the City of Los Angeles, he created a partnership to oversee 22 underperforming schools.

Antonio Villaraigosa Biography Photo
The Mayor faced personal challenges during his first term as well. After 20 years of marriage, Corina and Antonio Villaraigosa divorced in 2007, and some observers wondered whether personal issues would curtail his effectiveness as Mayor, and prevent his re-election. The following year saw a major victory for Villaraigosa, when the voters of Los Angeles County passed Measure R, a ballot initiative the mayor had supported vigorously, raising the sales tax by one-half cent to fund a number of badly needed public transportation projects. The measure enabled the County to invest $40 billion in new rail, road and highway projects. Despite the upheaval in the Mayor's personal life he was easily elected to a second term in 2009. Pundits raised the possibility of Villaraigosa running for the governorship of California in 2010, but he quickly affirmed his intention to complete his second term as mayor before seeking any other office.

The financial panic of 2008, and the subsequent deep recession, caused a massive drop in city revenues, requiring deep cuts to municipal services and painful concessions from the Mayor's former allies in public employees' unions. In spite of these constraints, Villaraigosa's second term saw the fulfillment of many of his goals for the city.

Antonio Villaraigosa Biography Photo
The number of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District meeting the state's academic performance goals doubled during his time in office. Four new transit lines had opened, and four more were under construction by the end of his second term. Los Angeles became the first big city to synchronize all of its traffic lights, reducing travel time for drivers and eliminating a metric ton of carbon emissions. The Mayor also undertook billion-dollar modernizations of the city's airport and harbor, and took 2,000 of the harbor's diesel trucks off the road, reducing emissions by 80 percent. In a city once notorious for its poor air quality, the Villaraigosa administration met the Kyoto Protocol goal for reducing greenhouse gases four years ahead of schedule. By the end of his term, the city was getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The Mayor made good on a campaign pledge to increase the city's park space, adding 650 acres of new park land, more than the previous 12 years combined. He also fulfilled his promise to put 1,000 more police officers on the streets, and saw crime drop to its lowest level in 60 years.

As President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa became a national spokesman for education reform and expanded investment in America's transportation infrastructure. He received additional national exposure as Chair of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which re-nominated President Barack Obama and set the stage for the President's re-election in November. Term limits barred Antonio Villaraigosa from serving a third term as Mayor of Los Angeles, but leaving office at 60 years of age he appeared prepared to consider further public service. Whatever his future plans, his impact on the City of Los Angeles has been unmistakable. The expansion of the city's subway and light rail systems, and the turn away from suburban sprawl to a model of increased population density around public transit hubs, will remain an enduring hallmark of Antonio Villaraigosa's leadership.

This page last revised on Jul 01, 2013 16:33 EDT
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