Travels with Antonio

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

Since this is the first day of summer, it seems appropriate to talk about traveling.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flew to Israel last week on official for the city.

Now…I'm not one of those knee-jerk critics who thinks that every trip out of town by an elected official qualifies for the "J" word -- junket.

There are benefits – at least potential upsides – to the mayor of Los Angeles showing his face in foreign ports.

When Tom Bradley was mayor, he used to be mobbed by crowds of fans and well wishers on his travels around the Pacific Rim. He was a walking invitation to visit Los Angeles.

Of course, Bradley went overseas so often that the Japanese who surrounded him in airports may have felt they knew him personally.

Villaraigosa guarded against not being recognized in Israel by taking along his own entourage.

More than two dozen close associates, friends and aides got on the plane, plus the mayor's two younger children.

He even brought a rabbi –- the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Also along were a trio of elected city council members. The top executives of LAX and the Department of Water and Power went too, since their agencies paid most of the bills.

A deputy police chief made the trip, which was justified in part as an exercise in tapping Israel's anti-terrorism expertise.

But the name that jumped out at me was not a city official at all.

Maria Elena Durazo is the most influential labor union leader in Los Angeles -– the head of the powerful County Federation of Labor.

That makes her a very important player in Villaraigosa's political future. In that context, it's not surprising that she accompanied the mayor to Asia a year ago and to Israel last week.

Most everything about this trip smacked of politics. Consider the timing.

The mayor is up for reelection next year. The year after that, a lot of people think he'll run for governor.

And it just so happens that one of his possible rivals for governor, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, visited Israel himself in May.

Villaraigosa's natural fundraising base includes the bastions of politically active Jewish wealth on the Westside.

L.A. Jews take Israel's security and prosperity very seriously. So it won't hurt him that Villaraigosa can now show photos of himself visiting a town in Gaza that comes under rocket attacks.

When he drops in on synagogues during Friday night services, as he frequently does, Villaraigosa can talk about his private meetings with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

antonio_and_ehud.jpgVillaraigosa even gave the prime minister a Kobe Bryant jersey…luckily, before the Lakers disgraced themselves in Boston in game 6 of the NBA finals.

Villaraigosa returned to LA this week more than a little defensive toward questions about the trip's cost.

The city is cutting services, raising parking fines and asking workers to take unpaid time off to balance the budget.

So when reporters asked him to estimate the public expense, Villaraigosa went to the bag of spinning tricks and flipped his answer.

The taxpayers of Los Angeles can go to bed knowing that the mayor is doing all he can protect us from terrorists, he told the cameras.

He resented even being asked, protesting that he's not the mayor of "some small town in the desert somewhere." LA is a global city, he says.

That's certainly true. But there's something about the way LA mayors always assert the claim of global status that makes me, on behalf of all Angelenos, feel like a bit of a rube.

If we're really so world-class, should we have to keep reminding people of our status?

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images