Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, said employees have been "bitterly disappointed" with Villaraigosa, whom he accused of focusing exclusively on "burnishing his image at the national level for whatever it is that comes next for him."
Asked what that might be, McOsker said, "I don't want to give him any ideas."
Union tensions acknowledged
Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, says he is pro-union and supports collective bargaining. He volunteers his reduction of the city workforce as evidence of successful budget management, though he is aware of the difficulties a frayed relationship with labor and other Democratic constituencies could create.
"Yes, I do think I would have a tough time in a primary," Villaraigosa said, "but why would you want to be in elected office if you're not taking on the tough issues?"
Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, said his cousin's decisions as mayor "were not always his first choice, but were the most rational decisions given the economic crisis of these times."
He called Villaraigosa "a great mayor in very trying circumstances."
Villaraigosa grew up in East L.A., and once wore on his right arm a tattoo -- later removed -- that said "Born to Raise Hell." When he was elected to the Assembly in 1994, members of the Latino caucus who had supported his opponent, Bill Mabie, were so upset they refused to tell Villaraigosa when they were meeting, said former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who roomed with Villaraigosa in Sacramento when the two were in the Legislature.
"He just showed up and kept showing up and building relationships. He wouldn't accept 'no' for an answer," said Hertzberg, who represented Sherman Oaks in the Legislature. "He's friends with all these guys, now. He just works it."
He isn't averse to risk.
Last year, Villaraigosa came to Sacramento to address one of the more perilous issues in state politics, Proposition 13. He told the Sacramento Press Club that California should reverse nonresidential portions of the hugely popular tax-limiting measure, and he argued lawmakers should be able to raise taxes by a majority vote, rather than by a two-thirds supermajority.
"Governor Brown, I say, we need to have the courage to test the voltage in some of these so-called 'third-rail' issues, beginning with Prop. 13," he said at the time.
The speech followed by less than a year a Sacramento education forum at which Villaraigosa, who once worked for the California Teachers Association, called Los Angeles teachers union leaders "the most powerful defenders of the status quo."
Frayed relationships between Democratic politicians and labor unions can be overcome. Brown, a Democrat, sparred with public employee unions when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, yet they poured millions of dollars into his campaign in 2010 to defeat Republican Meg Whitman.
"I think that whatever positions he (Villaraigosa) has taken against labor, by and large, he's continued to be willing to talk with them, and to work with them," said John Hein, a former lobbyist for the CTA. "I think by the time you get into a campaign, it's a question of what's the alternative."
Hein said, "Antonio's a decent guy. ... If you're in politics and you're going to be successful, you've got to be tough."
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