A little over a year ago, shortly after his election win, Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa was seen on every local Los Angeles television news outlet “aggressively” attacking the LA pot-hole problem by going out into the field and filling those roadway annoyances personally. Smiling, and with sleeves rolled above the elbow in anticipation of the backbreaking blue-collar work in which he was about to partake, he posed for the media wearing a fashionable workman’s hardhat, and wielding a stout shovel that he deftly used to ever-so-gently pat a smattering of asphalt into a shallow depression on a not-so-busy San Fernando Valley street. And the media was there to capture it all.
I always sort of knew Villaraigosa was a bit of an attention whore, but at that moment, I had no doubts. Not that it really matters in the long run, nor is it much of a surprise (the man loves being on TV) but now, thanks to a leaked confidential memo, the entire city of Los Angeles can see what a prima donna our mayor truly is.
I just think it’s kind of funny. Sometimes, the Los Angeles Times redeems itself.
Villaraigosa is no rock star, but he gets the treatment. OK, where are the breath strips?
In the year since he became mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa has undergone a transformation from garden-variety public official to something approaching a rock star, drawing crowds wherever he goes.And attending to L.A.’s celebrity mayor — according to a confidential memo — is no small endeavor.
It’s up to a swarm of harried aides to keep the boss hydrated and happy, primped and pampered, ensuring that he has clean hands and fresh breath (he gobbles Listerine strips by the pack).
Villaraigosa is chauffeured around town by police in a black GMC Yukon.
Two personal assistants, assigned to him in alternating shifts, tend to his needs, shadowing him from morning to night and keeping him in view at all times should he need anything. His seven press aides field questions from reporters, arrange news conferences and keep him in the loop about breaking events.
These sorts of details are expected to remain private — part of the stagecraft that keeps the frenetic mayor gliding effortlessly and relaxed through the city.
But the two-page memo, “Staffing the Mayor,” offers a rare glimpse into the mania behind the man. The instructions — distributed to everyone who works for the mayor and obtained by The Times — portray a chief executive focused on detail and comfort, always appearing in control and on message.
“Your job is to remain at all times within the mayor’s line of sight,” the memo states. “You should constantly adjust your position so the mayor can see you and call you over if need be.”
Villaraigosa, of course, is not the only public figure who likes royal treatment.
Some date the current wave of celebrity pampering to a mischievous act by a hard-rock band.
The group Van Halen once placed a clause in its contract requiring bowls of M&M candy, with the brown ones plucked out. The Rolling Stones responded a year later by demanding candy bowls filled only with brown M&Ms. From there, the practice took hold — Britney Spears, for one, demanded full-length mirrors and Pop Tarts in her dressing room — and has eventually crept into politics as well.
Vice President Dick Cheney asks that his hotel room TVs be tuned to Fox News, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) crafted similarly picayune requests of hosts during his presidential campaign — right down to his preference for noncarbonated bottled water.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a Hollywood celebrity by the time he entered politics, demands that his staff keep rooms cold because he doesn’t like to sweat. And he often travels with a hair and makeup artist (he took one on a trade mission to China last year), a Hollywood speech coach and another personal aide who carries his papers and places important calls.
Villaraigosa comes to his position more modestly but has developed expensive tastes of his own. Once a labor organizer, he now enjoys a good meal and a pricey bottle of wine. On one recent occasion, he asked the chef of a downtown Los Angeles restaurant to prepare his foie gras specially for him, and he selected a $140 bottle of wine, pronouncing it a “good value.”
Villaraigosa’s staff deals with more mundane details: Newcomers receive step-by-step directions for assisting him before, during and after appearances.
Aides are instructed to carry Listerine breath strips, business cards, two pens, a Sharpie marker, a notepad, a small hand sanitizer, bottled water and an extra copy of briefing materials and speech cards.
Assistants also are reminded to greet the mayor at his car when he arrives at an event, giving him “a full breakdown of the situation,” and to arrange seating near an exit “so that he can leave discreetly if need be.” And they are directed to “have backup exits in case a new route is needed to avoid certain situations such as unruly crowd[s], aggressive constituents, protesters or media.”
Staff members must keep an eye on their own behavior as well, staying in constant eye contact with the mayor but not getting too close. “A 3-5 foot distance is usually good,” the memo states.
Aides need to stay alert at receptions and other crowded gatherings where the mayor is schmoozing. “While staffing the mayor your focus should be on him, not on networking or mingling with guests,” the memo states.
And what if the mayor is a no-show?
“Never under any circumstance should you answer why he is not coming if you do not know the answer,” the memo says.
Deputy Communications Director Joe Ramallo downplayed the significance of the instructions, calling them “suggested guidelines” that carried over from the mayor’s two years on the City Council.
“Give me a break,” Ramallo said. “This is a mayor who is more engaged and active around the city than any other in L.A.’s history. By the standards of most officeholders who have much larger staffs, he is not tightly choreographed. You’ve seen him in action.”
Villaraigosa’s exacting attention to detail can include impatience at those who foul him up. He grew visibly frustrated last week when a translation system failed to work adequately during a town hall meeting in South Los Angeles. “Fix it,” he barked.
He shoots annoyed looks at reporters who forget to turn off their pagers or cellphones during news conferences. “I’m a driver,” he said in an interview Tuesday, “but I’m fair.”
Aides get the message — but won’t comment unless their names are withheld, for obvious reasons. “Everything needs to be impeccable,” one said.
“It’s good to keep the boss happy,” another added.
Others outside the mayor’s office know that it’s smart to please Villaraigosa.
Giuliano’s Delicatessen & Bakery on the second floor of City Hall started carrying Listerine breath strips last year after a Villaraigosa aide asked if they were available.
Now a Villaraigosa staff member arrives once or twice a week to buy strips or to pick up a small Cobb salad the deli prepares — without olives or dressing — just for the mayor, manager Raul Medrano said. The breath strips have become so popular that sometimes the deli runs out.
Standing beneath a framed photograph of Villaraigosa and deli employees posing behind the counter, Medrano said, “We go through a case a week.”