Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa planned to use the year to, as he put it recently, continue on a journey of reflection.
The meditative journey would likely include real trips to far-flung locales as part of his regular speaking circuit. He’d continue working as a well-paid consultant. He’d do that, perhaps, until he prepared to run for California governor in 2018.
Then U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced earlier this month that she would not run for another term.
Villaraigosa, who left office in 2013, started making phone calls. He told close associates that he called his friend and the state’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, and didn’t receive a return call. He told them that he called his longtime political consultant, Averell “Ace” Smith, and said he didn’t get a callback.
Two days after Boxer’s announcement, Villaraigosa issued a statement that he would “seriously consider looking at running.”
Harris aides publicly confirmed Monday night that she would run, and she formally launched her campaign on Tuesday. Since, Villaraigosa has been telling friends that he’s grown more resolute about mounting a challenge that key players in the Democratic Party didn’t consider him for. He relishes a possible role as an underdog, as he was in his City Council race and first two races for mayor, they said.
Former Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, a close ally of Villaraigosa from his time as Assembly speaker, said she’s met with Democrats in the Central Valley since Harris began her campaign and asked that they withhold their support until Villaraigosa comes to a resolution. She added he may need hard data like polling before formally launching a campaign.
“Antonio will make the very best decision. If he gets in, it will be because he knows he can win the race,” Reyes said.
“You have to do a lot of pre-work, and I think that’s what he’s going through. He’s being very strategic and very methodical. He wants to get in it to win it. He’s seeing if the money is there, the support is there.”
If he runs, Villaraigosa could become the state’s first Latino senator as well as carry the mantle for Southern California.
Though Los Angeles Democrats have held influential positions in the Legislature, much of the party’s power base has remained in the north. Feinstein and Boxer, elected in 1992, are originally from the Bay Area.
Asked by a KABC-LA anchor on Sunday who he thought should challenge for the Boxer seat, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he sees “a wealth of great people.” He added: “I hope somebody from Los Angeles does run.”
It wouldn’t be the first opportunity for higher office that Villaraigosa let go by.
In 2009, with Los Angeles facing a $530 million budget deficit, Villaraigosa withdrew himself from the following year’s gubernatorial race. The city had given him so much, he told a cable TV audience. He didn’t want to walk away.
After leaving City Hall, he went into consulting and academia, and plotted a return to public office.
Villaraigosa has other options this time as well. His close ties with the Clintons could earn him a Cabinet position should Hillary Clinton win the presidency.
Among Villaraigosa’s considerations is whether he can raise enough money. Also weighing a bid are the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, state Treasurer John Chiang, Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra, and several of their congressional colleagues. Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and two former state GOP chairman are showing interest.
Harris is off to a head start. On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a voice for the party’s liberal wing, urged her supporters to help Harris immediately raise $25,000. Friday, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York emailed supporters with a $35,000 goal by midnight. EMILY’s List, an influential group that backs pro-choice Democratic women, emailed its members about her candidacy.
Harris lives part time in Los Angeles and in her fall re-election campaign ran TV ads in the area to increase her profile.
Villaraigosa has experience raising money in small increments and cultivated ties with donors in Hollywood and the Bay Area.
Nationally, he was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He chaired the the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012, raising money for the convention. In 2008, he was a national co-chairman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.
“He has a very loyal and devoted following of folks that go back many years,” said Michelle Maravich, a veteran political fundraiser in Los Angeles who goes back with Villaraigosa to his days as Assembly speaker.
The prospect of another run has forced him to deal with the fraying of personal and political relationships.
It wasn’t long ago that Harris co-chaired a reception for his mayoral re-election in San Francisco. At the time, Villaraigosa and then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom were seen as probable rivals to run for governor in 2010. Newsom’s name was not among those mentioned on the invitation, and many saw this as Harris aligning with Villaraigosa.
Times have changed. This month, Harris swore in Newsom to a second term as lieutenant governor at an intimate ceremony in Sacramento. Smith and his SCN Strategies team, Villaraigosa’s longtime consultants, work closely with Harris and Newsom. They are are running Harris’ Senate campaign and are likely to guide Newsom in the next governor’s race. Smith and SCN declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Harris.
Villaraigosa is said to be keeping long hours as he wrestles with the decision of whether to run. He’s sought the counsel of Democratic strategists Garry South and Bill Carrick, they said. If he gets in, Villaraigosa would face further scrutiny over his stewardship of the city and the extramarital affair that ended his marriage in 2007.
While he may still have his eye on the Governor’s Office, some believe Boxer’s Senate seat is his best opportunity to win statewide. Democrats, along with the ethnic and regional coalitions he will depend on, participate in much higher numbers in presidential elections.
Villaraigosa won’t have to compete with his successor, Garcetti, who would draw away votes. Garcetti is viewed as a future candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate, possibly in 2018.
Villaraigosa’s regular appearances on TV as mayor would give him a boost in the vote-rich Los Angeles media market, said Carrick, a strategist to Garcetti and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Villaraigosa also would be able to put together a statewide coalition.
“He knows the politics of this stuff well; there’s no reason why he shouldn’t run,” Carrick said. “If you have an opportunity to have a major office, I don’t think you go shopping around.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.