Capitol Alert

Antonio Villaraigosa’s departure scrambles U.S. Senate race

Antonio Villaraigosa speaks about Proposition 13 during a Sacramento Press Club lunch in August 2011 when he was Los Angeles mayor. Villaraigosa’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t be running for the U.S. Senate seat leaves Latino leaders without an obvious choice.
Antonio Villaraigosa speaks about Proposition 13 during a Sacramento Press Club lunch in August 2011 when he was Los Angeles mayor. Villaraigosa’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t be running for the U.S. Senate seat leaves Latino leaders without an obvious choice. Sacramento Bee file

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has decided against a run for the U.S. Senate, leaving California Latinos without an immediate standard-bearer for the office and shifting the focus to Washington where a handful of Democrats are considering possible candidacies.

Villaraigosa, 62, a former speaker of the state Assembly, spent more than a month conversing with supporters and soliciting advice from elected leaders, fundraisers and consultants on a potential effort to succeed Sen. Barbara Boxer next year.

“I am humbled by the encouragement I’ve received from so many to serve in the United States Senate,” he said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “But as I think about how best to serve the people of this great state, I know that my heart and my family are here in California, not Washington, D.C.”

His departure leaves Latino leaders without an obvious choice, and could prompt some of them to declare support for the only announced candidate in the race, Democrat Kamala Harris, the state attorney general.

Harris has spent weeks raising money and securing the backing of everyone from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey to Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

“There is no question that Antonio Villaraigosa would have mounted a very formidable campaign,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But it’s just as clear that there are a lot of powerful forces lining up in the other corner.”

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and leaders from the California Latino Legislative Caucus have said they are concerned about a possible lack of ethnic and geographical diversity in the field.

In an unorthodox appeal earlier this month, the caucus commissioned a poll, timing its release to statements that emphasized a Latino candidate would motivate voters, particularly Latinos, to go to the polls in 2016. Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, at the time lamented that much of the public discussion had been focused on a “narrow list” of candidates and largely dismissed “Latinos who have proven they’re able to have broad appeal.”

Inflaming the situation is the perception that a small group of powerful Northern California Democrats and their operatives were maneuvering behind the scenes to help clear the field for Harris. Indeed, Villaraigosa supporters pointed to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s comments to The Sacramento Bee that the former Los Angeles mayor should sit out the Senate race out of “loyalty” to Harris.

On Tuesday, Alejo said Villaraigosa remains a valued and respected public servant “who still has a great deal to offer California.”

“We look forward to working with him to improve California wherever the future may lead him,” Alejo said. “We remain hopeful that the U.S Senate race will energize and excite voters up and down our great state.”

Democrats considering bids include Reps. Loretta Sanchez, Adam Schiff, Xavier Becerra, and former Secretary of the Army and Assemblyman Louis Caldera.

Any Democrat would be a heavy favorite to retain the seat given the state’s political makeup. On the Republican side, Rocky Chávez, a state assemblyman from Oceanside, and Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, former state GOP chairmen, are exploring campaigns.

Former state Sen. Lou Correa, an Orange County Democrat who has known Sanchez for more than 20 years, said he suspects she was waiting for Villaraigosa to act. He noted her acrimonious unseating of GOP Rep. Bob Dornan in 1996.

“She took on the whole Republican establishment, and won, and ... I think this probably brings her closer to a decision to run,” Correa said.

“I do believe we need a person who is balanced in terms of reflecting the views of the state of California, and we need a person who could energize that Latino base to come out and vote,” he said. “I think she’s the person to do it.”

Villaraigosa’s decision not to run follows high-profile exits from what could have been a crowded race involving the state’s next generation of political leaders: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang and climate change activist Tom Steyer. Newsom is the first to all but declare his candidacy for governor.

Public and private polls showed Villaraigosa would have started the Senate race a serious underdog. It wouldn’t have been the first time, given that he began his political career as a patron of orphan causes.

As a state assemblyman, he introduced bills viewed as long shots: levies on the wealthy, an expansion of health care, tough gun regulations, tippler taxes on alcohol at bars and clubs, and legislation allowing women to breastfeed in public. An early supporter of gay rights, some accused him of grandstanding.

Rising to speaker of the lower chamber, many of his early efforts became law. After losing his first race for Los Angeles mayor, Villaraigosa went on to defeat an incumbent to win a seat on the City Council.

In his 2005 rematch with Mayor Jim Hahn, Villaraigosa backed a sales tax increase to pay for more police and again took on issues such as health care and affordable housing. He lost the key labor federation endorsement, but won the race, becoming the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872 and gracing the cover of Newsweek.

Four years later he recaptured the office, but this time by an underwhelming margin. Hampered by the weakening economy, massive budget deficits and an affair with a Spanish-language TV anchor that ended his marriage, Villaraigosa elected to stay out of the 2010 governor’s race, citing his loyalty to voters and the city.

“It’s hard to be indifferent about Antonio if you live in Southern California,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, and a longtime Villaraigosa observer. “You either like the guy a whole lot, or you don’t.”

To mount a Senate run, he would have had to untangle himself from a thicket of high-paying consulting contracts he landed since leaving the mayor’s office in 2013, including a pact with the controversial nutritional company Herbalife.

Perhaps most crucial to his ultimate determination, a contest may have forced him to abandon what he’s long identified as his next political ambition: running for governor of California.

“People have had a hard time, including me, seeing him as one of 100” U.S. senators, Regalado said. “He likes to shine. He likes the spotlight. He really wants to be governor.”

Villaraigosa more than hinted as much in the statement, saying he would “continue my efforts to make California a better place to live, work and raise a family. We have come a long way, but our work is not done, and neither am I.”

If he decides to run again, he could have two options ahead of the 2018 election, with Gov. Jerry Brown leaving office because of term limits and Sen. Dianne Feinstein possibly deciding to finally step down from the Senate.

Schnur said 2016 may have been his best shot, given that Latinos and Southern Californians vote in higher numbers in presidential election years.

“The question is whether Villaraigosa is just waiting two years for the next opening or if he’s done,” Schnur said. “But it’s hard to see the 2018 landscape looking more inviting than this one.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

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