Two Mayors, Two Sexcapades

It's a tale of two cities, two rising political stars, and two sex scandals. In other words, it's a California classic. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admitted last week that he'd been carrying on an affair with a Telemundo television reporter 19 years younger than he is. The news came six months after his neighbor to the north, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, was forced to admit that he had had an affair with the wife of his campaign manager—a confession accompanied by the mayor's admission that he had a drinking problem, and would be seeking outpatient counseling.

Is there a deeper meaning to be discovered—beyond the fact that it's a lively time to work the political beat in the Golden State, and leaders here make good fodder for late-night comics? (The latest on L.A.: "It was so hot our mayor was having sex with a reporter from an Alaskan TV station—that's how hot," Jay Leno joked Wednesday night). A closer look at how the mayors have handled their respective messes does suggest some lessons that may apply to politicians in hot water beyond the state's borders (paging Senator Vitter!). It's also one window into the public's tolerance for sex scandals these days. The issue is of more than passing interest to California voters; after all, pundits project that Villaraigosa, 54, and Newsom, 39, might well be rivals for statewide office—perhaps as soon as 2010, when Arnold Schwarzenegger will be winding up his time in the governor's mansion. How the mayors measure up:

1. Getting the Story Out
Newsom gets credit for a rapid response. News that he had betrayed campaign manager Alex Tourk—who also happens to be one of his best friends—by sleeping with Tourk's wife, Ruby, broke midweek. The mayor, who was separated at the time of the affair (and later divorced) from television commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle, copped to it immediately; by the following Monday, he had announced he had a drinking problem and would enter outpatient treatment. That did not stanch the bleeding right away; Newsom adviser Peter Ragone counted 16 negative stories in one newspaper alone in a single day. The confession of an alcohol problem also gave the story extended life; critics suggested it was a ploy for sympathy. But at least he wasn't ducking the issue. "He got it out early and he got it out himself," says University of Southern California political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "Which is exactly what Antonio did not do."

It's true; Villaraigosa's story dribbled out slowly. Last winter, after reporters noticed he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, the mayor insisted that rumors of separation from wife Corina Villaraigosa were "absolutely not true." (Their surname is an unhyphenated conjunction of his family name, Villar, and hers, Raigosa—making infidelity a taxonomic challenge, as well as a marital one.) He put the ring back on, but in June his office put out a press release announcing a separation while asking "the media and the public to respect our privacy." (Corina remained as silent, as Kimberly had in San Francisco—though Guilfoyle had long left the Bay Area for a New York job at Court TV by the time news of her husband's indiscretions broke.) But three days later, the mayor called the press together to repeat news of the split and a call for privacy. The jibes were merciless ("You want privacy? Don't call a news conference," wrote L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez). Villaraigosa then refused to answer questions about whether an affair caused the split—which only led reporters to dig deeper. By early July, the Los Angeles Daily News had the goods: the 54-year-old father of four was having an affair with a very attractive 35-year-old Telemundo reporter and anchor named Mirthala Salinas. (The paper's source: Villaraigosa's 88-year-old mother-in-law.) At yet another press conference, the mayor frankly admitted his guilt and asked for forgiveness—then disappeared over the 4th of July holiday, only to reemerge this week.

2. Keeping Your Friends Close
In a city where politics can be a blood sport, Newsom got both more heat and more help from his fellow officeholders than his L.A. counterpart. Jake McGoldrick, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, blasted Newsom as "morally despicable" and called for his resignation. But the pol who mattered most came to his aid in public. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also a former San Francisco mayor, chided Newsom at first ("Big mistake, bad judgment, and he has to deal with that," she said.) But after he pledged to enter rehab, she signaled strong support. "I think the mayor will solve his problem," Feinstein said. "I intend to continue to work with him in any way I can."

Villaraigosa, too, has friends in high places, but they've been of limited help to date. Early on, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a key ally, came forward to say he was "there for [Villaraigosa] 150 percent." But since the Salinas revelation, Nuñez has stayed pretty quiet; most accounts merely point out that when Nuñez was between marriages, he dated her, too. Politicians still appear on the platform with him, but Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, believes some local pols have resisted giving Villaraigosa a helping hand for fear that more embarrassing news may yet leak out. "Even people who want to protect him are taking a wait-and-see attitude," says Regalado. "They don't know what other shoes may be dropping."

Villaraigosa advisors say there are no other women. And they are quick to say that even if there is no Feinstein, there's been no local McGoldrick calling for his resignation, either. Elected officials who've criticized Villaraigosa in the press find it prudent to remain anonymous.

3. Getting Back to Business
Newsom pushed hard to ensure that the people's business overtook his personal life in the headlines, and it worked. He announced environmental initiatives, civil service reforms and campaign to fill potholes; gradually, the questions died down. Villaraigosa followed suit, re-emerging in a flurry of appearances this week to discuss street repair, a summer jobs program and a clean-burning locomotive environmental cleanup at the port of Los Angeles. By Wednesday, 10 cameras were still trailing the mayor—a sizable contingent in apolitical L.A.—but the embarrassing questions had tapered off, at least for now. A frenetic activism suits Villaraigosa's temperament, and aides says the plan is to "be out there, be active, (and) don't crack under pressure," according to Ace Smith, a Villaraigosa consultant.

4. Withdrawing Political Capital
Newsom, whose approval ratings were in the 70s before the mess, made himself popular fighting for gay marriage and making the city the first in the nation to offer universal health coverage. His rehab didn't seem to hurt him much in the very libertarian and forgiving city by the Bay. Today, his approval ratings are in the high 70s, and he looks to be in strong shape in his race for re-election in November. Critics on the Board of Supervisors still snipe at him, but the only announced electoral opposition at this point comes from local characters with names like Chicken John Rinaldi and Kenny the Clown.

Villaraigosa is popular, too, though two years into his first term he does not have as strong a record of accomplishments to rest on as his neighbor to the north. Villaraigosa gets credit for slashing L.A.'s budget deficit from about $300 million to $100 million while hiring 1,000 new cops and crusading against rising gang violence. But he's faced very public defeats on his signature issue; his promise to win control of over L.A.'s sprawling and dysfunctional school system died in the courts. Aides promise more school-reform proposals soon, once the scandal dies down. It's too early to tell just how much his affair has cost the mayor among voters. Before the scandal, his favorable rating was 71 percent. No one has polled since. "If I had to make a prediction today, I'd say his favorables are down but his job rating is about the same," ventured a Villaraigosa adviser, who declined to discuss the mayor's troubles publicly.

So maybe sex doesn't kill, after all—politically, anyway. And it just might help level the playing field in this case. If Villaraigosa and Newsom do both decide to enter the race to succeed Schwarzenegger, they won't be able to attack each other over their private lives. For now, the two have steered clear of commenting publicly on one another's foibles (though aides for each praise the other's record of service and tenacity). Private polls show the two men running in the low teens—lagging behind Jerry Brown, now the state's attorney general. Brown of course has advantages: the two-term governor has better statewide name recognition. Plus, the longtime bachelor who once titillated Californians by dating singer Linda Ronstadt finally settled into a quiet married life in 2005.