By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007
LOS ANGELES When he was elected mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa was just what this city needed. After the bowl of oatmeal Jimmy Hahn and the vacationing septuagenarian Dick Riordan ended their terms, the little firecracker with the professionally whitened smile was the hyperactive booster rooster that L.A. craved. In his off-hours, Riordan rode his bike. Hahn went to Home Depot. Villaraigosa goes to Vanity Fair parties -- after putting in 15-hour days.
The mayor was on fire. Only we didn't know how hot.
Here's the dish. The 54-year-old married mayor has a 35-year-old girlfriend, who happens to be a local TV anchor, who happens to be smokin' herself, who reported on the air last month that the mayor was splitting from his wife. Why? She didn't say. Why? Because she is his mistress.
"The rumors were true," read Mirthala Salinas, an anchor on NBC-Telemundo Channel 52, in Spanish on June 8. "Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa confirmed today that he is separating from his wife, Corina, after more than 20 years of marriage."
Politics in L.A. can be a dull affair. The local TV stations usually don't even bother. There's all the dreary municipal corruption, none of the fizz. Council deliberations on wastewater recycling just can't compete with the antics of the celebrity residents and freeway chases. The citizenry has a kind of ADD when it comes to civic governance. But not now.
"At L.A. City Hall, the summer of love," read the headline on Steve Lopez's column in the Los Angeles Times. Everybody is tuning in.
It's like one of those bodice-rippers on Spanish-language cable -- call it "Mi Alcalde, Mi Corazon" ("My Mayor, My Heart") -- a telenovela for our times. Appropriate? For a mayor who used to have a small devil and the words "Born to Raise Hell" tattooed on his shoulder, perhaps.
The Web site LA Observed reports that the Villaraigosa affair is the most viewed story at LATimes.com and the Los Angeles Daily News site. A recent blog head: "Antonio Villaraigosa, Living La Vida Loca."
Stop, you say. This is none of our business. Excellent point. So you may direct your criticism to the mayor, who keeps holding news conferences about his personal life while he admonishes the media for their interest in his personal life.
An exchange from his Tuesday news conference, his second on the state of his marriage.
Reporter: "Is Miss Salinas pregnant?"
Mayor: "I can tell you emphatically that that question is outrageous, and the answer is no, she is not pregnant."
Then Villaraigosa continued, because he always continues, "And that's why -- the fact that you would ask a question like that -- that's precisely why I said that the details of this relationship are a personal matter. I've acknowledged the relationship. I've acknowledged the divorce. But more than that is frankly not a public matter."
Good luck. The gossip swirling around Villaraigosa began months ago, when reporters noticed the mayor's wife, Corina, had stopped attending public events with her husband and that the man in the impeccably tailored suits had stopped wearing his wedding ring. This gossip was not without foundation -- Villaraigosa and Corina, 49, had a lengthy separation a decade ago after the former California Assembly speaker's previous affair. More ammo? Antonio, who has two teenage children with Corina, also has two grown daughters by two former girlfriends.
After the blogger Luke Ford, once called "the Matt Drudge of porn," posted that the mayor's marriage was "kaput" in late January, the Los Angeles Times grilled Villaraigosa and printed his denial: "Absolutely not true." As for the wedding ring, Villaraigosa was wearing it again. His aides explained that he had stopped wearing the band because he had lost weight and it was slipping off.
Then, last month Villaraigosa issued a statement announcing the couple's separation. Then he held a news conference. Then Corina filed for divorce. (When Corina Raigosa and Antonio Villar married in 1987, they combined their names to form Villaraigosa. Will they now change their names back?)
Inevitably, finally, almost mercifully, the Los Angeles Daily News published a piece on Tuesday outing Salinas -- by interviewing Antonio Villaraigosa's 88-year-old mother-in-law.
Now there are questions about Miss Salinas, as the mayor calls her. Salinas has reported a number of stories about the mayor and his political fights, which is a problem. (Telemundo says she was moved off the political beat -- but obviously not far enough.)
"The short quote, devoid of context, is 'Bad girl!' " says Rafael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "You don't get involved with your sources. It's inappropriate on any number of levels." Yesterday, the station announced Salinas would be taking a leave while her bosses conduct an ethical review.
But Olmeda is not about to condemn the couple's personal lives. "If these two are making each other happy, that's more important than professionalism and careers. I'm not going to condone adultery or anything. I feel bad for his wife. But this is very serious business; real people's lives are involved with this, and you can't pass judgment on that."
In her own statement, Salinas explained, "I first got to know the mayor at a professional level, where we went on to become friends. The current relationship grew out of our existing friendship." Salinas said that although she and the mayor "are both public figures, I hope that everyone can understand and respect my desire to maintain my privacy when it comes to personal relationships."
Right. California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a friend of the mayor, confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that he dated Salinas in 2003 when he was divorced from his wife (the two have since reunited). The L.A. Weekly also reported that Salinas had a past relationship with Alex Padilla, a state senator from Los Angeles.
What will the political fallout be? Villaraigosa is a rising star for the Democrats, one of the party's most visible Latinos. He is closely aligned with the Clintons (he endorsed Hillary) and has his eye on a possible run for the governor's mansion in 2010 -- where he might face off with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was also marred by scandal after he admitted to sleeping with the wife of his campaign manager (because his judgment was clouded by too much wine).
Regarding Villaraigosa: "Right now, his popularity is really stratospheric," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State in L.A. "It's going to take a hit, but he's still a rock star."
Granted, there will be questions about judgment. A cheating husband also naturally would lose some ground with women. "He's in gender trouble," Regalado says. As for the Latino vote, Regalado guesses, "People will say, 'Villaraigosa has a problem, but he's our Latino. It's enough to get me mad, to make me question his ethical behavior. But he's our Latino, and he's going places.' "
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.