It was seemingly just another in a series of meetings that Antonio Villaraigosa was having with Los Angeles newspaper editorial boards who were interviewing mayoral candidates in the spring of 2005 to determine endorsements in the city’s mayoral campaign.
This one was in the sixth floor board room of a group of weeklies officed on Wilshire Boulevard, coincidentally just a block from Getty House, the city’s official mayoral residence symbolic of the position Villaraigosa now sought to win after his unsuccessful try four years earlier.
As is his nature, Villaraigosa was playfully jocular entertaining questions he had answered hundreds of times, until a young reporter working on a feature on wife Corina Villaraigosa asked a question that on its face seemed harmless and almost softballish in its apparent ease.
“How did you and Corina meet?”
Villaraigosa continued to smile as his eyes averted downward, almost as if looking for an answer scripted in the large notecards in front of him.
Then the erstwhile charismatic candidate did something remarkable: He fumbled words in his mouth that he couldn’t get out. He started, stopped, tried to start again, then looked up at the reporter, the smile gone from his face.
Embarrassingly, Villaraigosa could not remember.
“I think we met, let’s see…”
He started on one story, then shifted to another, before elaborating in a halting manner on how he had met the woman who had borne him two children and taken him back about one of the most scandalous extramarital affairs in Los Angeles politics.
When the Villaraigosas’ 20-year marriage came crumbling down, first in a mayoral announcement last Friday and resoundingly when Corina filed for divorce Tuesday, it came as news to only those who for the past several months had been unwilling to believe that the marriage not only was falling apart – but that it had been in trouble for years.
In the aftermath, the story of the Villaraigosas’ first breakup in 1994 has been repeated often – Corina filing for divorce in the wake of Antonio’s primary triumph when she learned of an affair he was having with the wife of a friend, the mother of their godchild.
But what has often overlooked, say friends, is the extent of Corina Villaraigosa’s heartbreak, her sense of personal humiliation among friends in the traditionally conservative, Catholic enclave of the Latino Eastside and the emotional journey she went through to accept her husband back amid gossip and rumors of continuing womanizing.
Corina Raigosa, the proud daughter of devout Roman Catholics who had sacrificed to see their child become a school teacher, was unmarried at 30,an age when most Latinas from the Eastside had long been raising young families. She was reluctant to enter into a relationship quickly – especially when she learned the Antonio Villar already had two out-of-wedlock daughters by two women.
At the time Villar was a labor organizer with political dreams that were aided by his then close friendship to County Supervisor Gloria Molina. When Antonio made his first run at public office, for an Eastside Assembly seat, in 1994, Corina had already given birth to their two children – and had been stricken by thyroid cancer not long after each birth.
Corina had been recovering from cancer surgery and treatment when she learned of Antonio’s affair.
In the subsequent years, after their reconciliation, friends recall that she was the reluctant political wife, rarely with Villaraigosa in Sacramento while he was in the State Assembly and usually only seen in public with him during local campaign appearances.
Extremely shy and private, she labored through interviews in both the 2001 and 2005 mayoral campaigns, even after Antonio’s election. Even then, the campaign staff went to lengths to protect her in contrast to most wives of ambitious politicians. Answers to many questions seemed rehearsed, several reporters recall.
But they had help in a sympathetic, adoring press corps that disdained the arms-length personality of former Mayor Jim Hahn and the virtual disappearance from public of his ex-wife.
The Villaraigosas’ was never a storybook marriage, according to friends of the Villaraigosas, though the news media's retelling of how they combined their respective last names into a new one that would become historic in Los Angeles would give it a romantic fairy-tale aspect all its own.
"I was planning to take his name," Corina recalled in one interview. "I was planning to become Corina Villar. (But) he said, 'Really? You're going to take my name? But Raigosa is your name.'"
Corina thought about it and decided to keep her name, but also add his name, connecting them with a hyphen. "I figured he was right," she said. "This was my name. I had it for 30 years. This is who I am."
Antonio mulled her decision for several days, then came up with another idea.
"I've been thinking about it," she recalled him telling her, "and why don't we combine our names to make one name? If you are willing to take my name, I should be willing to take yours.'"
If that sounds like Hollywood scripting, some friends say it is not far off – that there also were other deeper personal reasons that Antonio had for changing the name that happened to be exactly like that of his natural father, who abandoned young Villar and the family.
This week the combined name has once again made water-cooler conversation among friends and others who wonder if the mayor will go back to his unmarried name.
But it is only part of the guessing and the wondering, as few believe that the breakup came without a cataclysmic driving wedge – and another woman or women.
According to the divorce papers, although the mayor did not make his announcement of the separation until June 8, the couple actually separated Sunday June 3.
The story circulating on the Eastside and Montebello, the city in whose school system Corina works, and also told by friends is that the breakup was triggered by Corina’s discovery on Antonio’s Blackberry of revealing romantic e-mails and messages from a woman. “Corina had sensed but this was evidence,” says a longtime friend.
“She’d had enough.”
New signs of the troubled marriage, say friends, had been evident for more than a year.
The last time the mayor and the city's First Lady had been seen together in public and photographed was May 26, 2006, when they appeared with then Mexican President Vicente Fox and his wife Marta Sahagun while they were in Los Angeles.
The mayor had stopped wearing his wedding ring around last Labor Day and a review of photographs from several image services found that he had last been photographed wearing the band ban last Sept. 5, at a major Los Angeles campaign rally for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Angelides.
In the months afterward, at the 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Aug. 27 the mayor arrived with then13-year-old daughter Natalia and at the 75th annual Hollywood Christmas Parade -- where the Villaraigosas rode together in the grand marshal's car the previous year -- the mayor appeared with only his daughter and then 17-year-old son Antonio Jr.
Villaraigosa and members of his staff vehemently denied suggestions of problems in the marriage, even claiming the ever-slim mayor had lost weight and had not had time to have his wedding ring resized.
Those denials now are just the surface of a growing credibility issue for Villaraigosa, who at a Monday news conference would not deny that a romantic relationship might be behind the breakup – telling reporters such questions about his personal and family life were off limits.
Bad move, say most pundits and political observers, for it has given new life to speculation and a guessing game.
Is it the television reporter who began fielding phone calls from reporters Wednesday? Is it the former mayoral aide who accompanied the mayor on one of his international trips? Is it the anchor-translator who has helped Antonio with his Spanish? Is it the…