Antonio Villaraigosa, in the first major policy address since opening his gubernatorial bid and Donald Trump’s victory, skewered the Republican president’s tough approach to immigrants on Wednesday while expressing an abiding pride for his own Mexican heritage.
“We are Americans first and foremost, but if anyone wants to make our Mexican heritage an issue, we will not shy from that. We embrace our Latino heritage as every bit a part of our American heritage,” Villaraigosa said in the speech, rebuking Trump’s rhetoric and policies toward Latinos and offering a potential rallying point for the state’s largest ethnic group.
But at the gathering of the California Latino Economic Institute in Sacramento, the former Los Angeles mayor stressed that he’s never run as “the Latino” candidate or served as a “Latino” elected official. He used the 23-minute speech to lay the groundwork for a candidacy focused on extending economic opportunity to every corner of the state.
“Travel a few miles from Brentwood to Boyle Heights or a long distance from Hillsborough to Huron, and you will see that there are actually two Californias – one largely white and wealthy, the other largely Latino and poor,” he said, emphasizing the answer isn’t to sow resentment about those who are better off.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“This growing inequality is threatening the very fabric of our society,” he said. “And so we can’t be truly progressive, unless all of us in California are progressing together.”
We embrace our Latino heritage as every bit a part of our American heritage.
Gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa
Villaraigosa suggested that the wide-open governor’s race could serve as a rare forum to unearth some of the harsh and unflattering realities that blemish the world’s sixth-largest economy – from deeply unaffordable housing to the escalating costs of higher education and child care, all while wages for many remain stagnate.
A former union organizer who went on to become speaker of the state Assembly and a mayor, he touched on the need to safeguard the rights and hard-earned pensions of employees. He also spoke about the importance of protecting the next generation of the workers who will be saddled with the obligations. He said the state could defend the rights of teachers while also promoting better, more efficient schools.
Villaraigosa has long criticized the state’s lack of education spending. However, over decades of working on education policy, at times bitterly at odds with teachers unions, he said, “if you want the taxpayers of this state to buy into investing more, we got to do more with the money we got.”
“We can’t be afraid of innovation. We can’t be saying ‘no’ to technology. We can’t keep on making excuses for the lack of success, sometimes,” Villaraigosa said. Then, he said, the state should reward schools with more money, focus on teacher training and empower parents.
“The next leader of this state has to say, ‘This is the most important issue. It will be job No. 1,’” he told the audience in response to a question.
Democrats in the race include Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang and former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin. Others are considering bids, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and former Controller Steve Westly, along with Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Villaraigosa said the state will also have to reconcile threats to the federal healthcare law and changes in trade agreements with North American partners. Leaders also will have to address how California delivers water and examine ways to make the business climate more friendly amid the constant concerns of environmentalists, he said.
“If you can modernize (the California Environmental Quality Act) to build a football stadium,” Villaraigosa asked to applause, “Why can’t you modernize CEQA to build a hospital ...?”
All of the changes facing California coincide with a major demographic shift, he said: “Latinos are now a plurality in California, and on the way to becoming a majority.”
But he said growing the middle class will lift people from poverty and create more economic opportunities for everyone.
“This is not just a Latino moment,” he said. “This is a California moment. And indeed, an American moment.”