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Top Villaraigosa legal advisor leaves to head Latino civil rights organization

July 14, 2009 | 11:16 am

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s chief counsel, Thomas Saenz, has been tapped to become president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the organization announced today.

Saenz has been one of Villaraigosa’s closest advisors since taking the City Hall post in August 2005, recently serving as the mayor’s lead representative in negotiations with city labor unions over salary and benefit concessions to help close the city’s $530-million budget gap.

Saenz also was one of the main architects of Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful effort to gain control over the Los Angeles Unified School District, which was a top priority in the mayor’s first term before it was rejected by the courts.

"Tom Saenz has been a trusted advisor who understands the importance of public service and working on behalf of those in need," Villaraigosa said.

“We could not ask for a better civil rights leader than Thomas Saenz to take the helm of MALDEF at this critical time,” Patricia A. Madrid, chairman of the MALDEF Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The Latino community is currently facing a drastic rise in hate crimes, and witnessing an explosive rebirth of extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric and measures that adversely affect all Latinos. A highly respected attorney and community leader, Thomas brings a wealth of legal expertise and dedication to civil rights causes that fundamentally define the future of Latinos.”

Before coming to City Hall, Saenz served as MALDEF’s lead counsel for 12 years and successfully challenged Proposition 187, an initiative to prohibit illegal immigrants from having access to social service and healthcare benefits as well as public schools.

Saenz had been approached by the Obama administration earlier this year to oversee the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, but that idea was withdrawn to avoid a confirmation fight over immigration issues, according to some civil rights leaders.

Saenz is the fourth senior member of the Villaraigosa administration to depart in recent months.

Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the city’s Housing Department, was nominated by President Obama to become assistant secretary for community planning and development at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The deputy mayor who oversaw Villaraigosa’s environment agency, Nancy Sutley, left earlier this year to work as one of Obama’s main environmental advisors. And Arif Alikhan, the city’s deputy mayor for homeland security and public safety, left to join the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

-- Phil Willon at City Hall