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LOS ANGELES—When he grew up on the tough streets of the city’s Eastside, City Hall was just a spike in the sky. Now, Antonio Ramon Villaraigosa, a kid from the barrio, gets his chance to run it.
Marking a historic turn in the city’s political life, Villaraigosa will formally take the oath of office Friday as the city’s 41st mayor, the first Hispanic to hold the office in more than a century.
He has said he will challenge a status quo that has tolerated dead-end schools, persistent gang crime and snarled traffic for too long. He talks of uniting a sprawling city divided by geography, wealth and color, ushering in an era of racial and civic harmony.
In Los Angeles, there is a need “to dream and think big,” he says.
Known for his chatty charm and easy smile, the job poses a challenge like no other Villaraigosa has faced in more than a decade of political life—overseeing a budget of nearly $6 billion, running a city of 3.7 million people with problems from air pollution to runaway housing costs.
As the first Hispanic mayor since 1872, he will also be carrying the hopes of many who see his victory as both a validation of Latino political strength and the enduring immigrant dream.
Villaraigosa, 52, a liberal Democrat, is the son of a Mexican immigrant who deserted the family. He credits his mother with holding the household together, and he turned around a troubled youth that included a scrape with the law during a restaurant brawl.
A high school dropout, a lawyer who flunked the bar exam four times, he made his mark with political instincts honed as a union activist and, later, as speaker of the state Assembly. He leaves his seat on the City Council to assume the mayoralty.
Along with his own impatient energy, Villaraigosa arrives in office with a convincing victory behind him. In a low-turnout election, he won 59 percent of the vote in a May race against incumbent James Hahn by broadening his Hispanic base to include significant numbers of blacks, along with white liberals and moderates.