Politics & Government

Antonio Villaraigosa eases back from ‘timeout’

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stops at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stops at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel. rbyer@sacbee.com

Antonio Villaraigosa sat this month in the lobby of Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel, hoping he wasn’t losing his voice and waiting for a break in the rain to cross the street for an espresso.

Since leaving office in 2013, the former mayor of Los Angeles had been dividing time between Los Angeles and the East Coast, where he was on a self-imposed “timeout, a time to reflect.”

But Villaraigosa recently gave up his apartment in New York, which he described as “a good place to be invisible,” and is now back in California full time.

He is widely expected to run for governor in 2018.

“Now is a good time to come back,” he said.

Villaraigosa, 61, had flown to Sacramento from Los Angeles for a panel on state politics. Nearly four years before the 2018 election, he sounds at times as if he already is running. He called at the forum for increased spending on schools and public infrastructure.

“We’re going to have to restore the luster to the California dream,” he said.

Villaraigosa is one of several potential top-tier Democratic candidates for statewide office. But unlike other contenders – including Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla – he does not currently hold elected office and will have been out of public life for five years by 2018.

This absence can limit a politician’s opportunities for exposure. But it also reduces liability.

“If you’re not holding elective office, you can pick and choose the fights you want to take on,” said Dan Schnur, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state this year and is director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “(Villaraigosa) doesn’t have to worry about making unpopular decisions. He can weigh in on those issues that he thinks will do him some good.”

The distance may benefit Villaraigosa. In his first term as L.A.’s mayor, Villaraigosa was bruised by an extramarital affair and hampered by a weak economy. He rebounded following his re-election, becoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and chairman of the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Still, “people are tired of two-term anything,” said Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, and “L.A. was tired of Antonio, there’s no question about that.”

Regalado said, “Sometimes you just have to give it a leave, so I think that Antonio understood that.”

Villaraigosa, the former Assembly speaker, is renting an apartment in Santa Monica. He advises corporations, including Banc of California and the nutritional products company Herbalife Ltd., which has been beset by controversy surrounding hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s claims that it is a pyramid scheme and misleads consumers.

Villaraigosa dismissed the criticism. Herbalife, he said, holds a “pre-eminent role in the health and nutrition industry.”

In addition to his corporate work, Villaraigosa guest lectures at universities and is a regular on the speaking circuit. Since leaving office, he has addressed audiences from China to Iceland, Turkey to Morocco, “speaking, you know, all over the place.”

“A lot of people are interested in the California story,” he said.

Villaraigosa declined to assess the field of potential candidates for governor in 2018. He also declined to say if he would run for the U.S. Senate if incumbent Barbara Boxer opts not to seek re-election in 2016.

It is most likely that Villaraigosa would sit out a Senate contest and wait to run for governor when Jerry Brown terms out.

“Having been a legislator and a mayor,” Villaraigosa said, “I particularly enjoy being a chief executive.”

In a campaign for governor, Villaraigosa would have challenges to overcome. Though himself a former labor organizer, Villaraigosa battled public employee unions while reducing the Los Angeles city workforce and attempting, unsuccessfully, to gain greater control of local schools.

He has called for the state to reverse nonresidential portions of Proposition 13, the popular tax-limiting measure, and he has argued that lawmakers should be able to raise taxes by a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds supermajority.

In the Sheraton Grand’s lobby, old friends and colleagues stopped to embrace Villaraigosa. Among the passers-by was his cousin, former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.

“I was just going to call you, cuz,” Villaraigosa said.

Then came a group of labor activists, including a woman who knew Villaraigosa from Los Angeles.

“I hope you’re not done running,” she said.

Villaraigosa smiled.

“I’m not,” he said, pausing, “done.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA

Age: 61

Title: Former Los Angeles mayor, former Assembly speaker

Résumé highlight: Lobbied as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors for passage of a federal transportation bill containing a low-interest loan program for billions of dollars in public transportation projects nationwide.

Chief goal in 2015: According to Villaraigosa, 2015 will be a year to “continue on this journey of reflection.”

Biggest challenge in 2015: Remaining relevant to voters and prospective donors while out of office.

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