Marcos Bretón

If Antonio Villaraigosa wants to be governor, he needs to make history and overcome it

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for California governor, speaks at a gubernatorial candidates forum in Sacramento.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for California governor, speaks at a gubernatorial candidates forum in Sacramento. AP

Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, wants to relocate to Sacramento as California’s first Latino governor since 1875.


That would make Villaraigosa a historic figure in a state that once was part of Mexico. It would cap a remarkable career forged in a broken, abusive home that he escaped.

If he somehow wins in a crowded field that includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Treasurer John Chiang and businessman John Cox, Villaraigosa would become the first state governor to have personally benefited from affirmative action programs that paved his way into UCLA.

This is a man who, after his father abandoned his family when Villaraigosa was 5 years old, spoke only English in his home because that’s the way his mother wanted it to be. “She was afraid of the discrimination she would face,” Villaraigosa said Tuesday, during a stop in Sacramento to promote a nascent gubernatorial candidacy yet to catch fire.

At 64, Villaraigosa arrives at this moment with many scars, accomplishments and curious moments in a wildly successful political career. He was born Antonio Ramon Villar Jr. of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. As a young man, he married Corina Raigosa and the two merged their names: Villaraigosa.

This became a brand that soared to unprecedented heights for a Latino politician from California. It was Villaraigosa who unseated James Hahn – son of longtime Los Angeles county supervisor Kenneth Hahn – as L.A.’s mayor. And when he left office, Villaraigosa was succeeded by Eric Garcetti, heir of another Los Angeles political dynasty.

Villaraigosa, who also served as speaker of the state Assembly, made his career by being an effective interloper into political circles that once were closed to people like him. That’s not easy and that’s not nothing. For all the self-congratulatory rhetoric of California as a cool, progressive place, state politics were not receptive to change until Villaraigosa’s generation pushed for change.

Now he’s back in a familiar place, chasing a well-to-do pretty boy for a top political prize. According to a UC Berkeley poll from last week, Newsom has a double-digit edge over Villaraigosa and others vying to succeed Jerry Brown as governor.

“The polls were against me when I ran against an incumbent,” Villaraigosa said, referencing his win against Hahn. “I’ve been here before.”

The difference is that in a statewide race, Newsom likely has an edge because of his Bay Area roots. The Bay Area largely controls California politics with its money and its larger voter turnouts compared to Villaraigosa’s home turf of Los Angeles. But there is a bigger obstacle facing Villaraigosa as he tries to gain ground on Newsom.

A much anticipated Latino dominance of California politics is still a mixed bag of voter apathy that diminishes potential power. To become governor, Villaraigosa would have to ignite the Latino voting base statewide as he did in Los Angeles in 2005 when he first was elected mayor.

“Latinos almost always underperform their registration,” said Paul Mitchell, one of the leading political statisticians in the state. “In California, they are 25 percent of the voters, but in the 2016 general election they were 22.6 percent of ballots cast. And in the primary, they were 20 percent. This underperformance is chronic, with only two examples I’ve found of Latinos overperforming registration.”

The first time that ever happened was in 2005, when Villaraigosa unseated Hahn in the mayoral race. The only other time was in 2006, when current state Senate leader Kevin de León was first elected to the state Assembly, Mitchell said.

That means the 2018 election is, in a very real sense, much bigger than people who’ve declared their candidacy for governor. It’s going to be a test that pits Bay Area money and muscle against the power of diversity in California politics.

The 2018 election already is shaping up to host an incredibly diverse panel of state officials. On the ballot for governor will be names such as Villaraigosa and Chiang. Senator Ed Hernandez will be running for lieutenant governor and Senator Ricardo Lara for insurance commissioner. Meanwhile, Alex Padilla will seek re-election for secretary of state and Xavier Becerra for attorney general.

“Latinos are also going to, for the first time, really see a ballot that is reflective of their strength in the overall California population (where Latinos are 38 percent of residents),” Mitchell said. “Will the cumulative effect of these campaigns – and all their mail, TV messaging, media coverage (and) organizing – collectively add to a spike in Latino turnout? Or will it be something that gets a negative reaction from the 65-70 percent of the electorate that will be white in 2018?”

Villaraigosa is a significant candidate because, at least at the outset, he is seeking to place the working poor on a statewide agenda that too often ignores them. The former L.A. mayor wants to create opportunities for young people like he once was. He wants to place poverty and job training at the front of public discussion.

“I want to open doors for everyone,” Villaraigosa said. “I don’t want to close the door on anyone.” He said this fully aware that Newsom has raised far more money and has the backing of a region setting the tone of California politics.

The state could use an expansion of a progressive agenda that has ignored too many working and urban poor people. Can Villaraigosa disrupt the order of power again? A lot is riding on the answer to that question.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton