Antonio Villaraigosa was born in East Los Angeles on January 23, 1953, to a Mexican immigrant father and a California-born mother of Mexican descent. His given name at birth was Antonio Villar. He was the eldest of four children and, by age five, found himself being raised by a single mother. At age 15, Villaraigosa volunteered for his first grape boycott led by civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez. Although briefly dropping out of high school, Villaraigosa responded to a pleading letter from his mother and returned to graduate from night school at Roosevelt High School. With the encouragement of teacher Herman Katz, Villaraigosa went on to pursue college and earned a bachelor's degree in history from UCLA and, in 1985, a law degree from People's College of Law (he never passed the bar). Villaraigosa worked his way up through Los Angeles labor circles to become a prominent organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles. After marrying Montebello school teacher Corina Raigosa in 1987, he and his new wife adopted their present last name Villaraigosa by combining his last name Villar with hers. In 1990,Villaraigosa was appointed to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Board and served there until 1994. In 1994, Villaraigosa was elected to the California State Assembly and, within his first term, was selected to serve as Democratic Assembly Whip and Assembly Majority Leader. In 1998, just four years after entering the Assembly, Villaraigosa was chosen by his colleagues to be the first Speaker of the Assembly from Los Angeles in 25 years. Villaraigosa left the Assembly in 2000 due to term limits and, in 2001, entered the fray to replace outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Villaraigosa was narrowly defeated in a run-off election by first-time opponent James Hahn. It was believed that Hahn's biting television commercials pointing out that Villaraigosa had written a letter to President Clinton (along with Cardinal Mahony and Sheriff Baca) asking for clemency for a convicted drug dealer contributed to the defeat. In 2003, Villaraigosa again was elected to public office to represent the 14th District seat on the Los Angeles City Council. He also served as national co-chairman of Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. In 2005, Villaraigosa again returned to campaign for mayor against Hahn and this time defeated the struggling incumbent. Villaraigosa assumed office on July 1, 2005, as 41st Mayor of the City of Los Angeles.
There was much excitement in 2005 when Villaraigosa was elected to office. He was the first Latino to be Mayor of Los Angeles in 133 years. The last Latino mayor, Cristobal Aguilar (10th Mayor of Los Angeles, 1866-1867 and 1870-1872), was credited with saving L.A.’s future “bacon” by successfully fighting off efforts to sell off the city’s water rights. It was hoped that this new Latino mayor would also successfully move the city forward. That promise, however, quickly blemished.
On the other hand, Villaraigosa was said to be willing to make difficult decisions as the city faced one of the worst economic crises in modern times. He made cuts to city finances and negotiated hard with city unions as revenues plummeted. He pushed hard for more police officers and crime plummeted. He fought for educational reform, transportation and redeveloping a dilapidated downtown. In July 2013, at Villaraigosa's exit from the office of Mayor of Los Angeles, a USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll found 47 percent of respondants viewed him favorably and 40 percent viewed him unfavorably. In his 2018 primary campaign for Governor of California, he was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and received 22 percent of the primary vote in Los Angeles County (behind front-runner Gavin Newsom's 33 percent).
So, was Mayor Villaraigosa a bad mayor? See our note on Most Regrettable Mayors of Los Angeles.