Capitol Alert

Willie Brown asks Villaraigosa not to run; Latinos concerned about diversity

Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly speaker, gestures while speaking during the dedication of the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Bridge at Treasure Island in February 2014.
Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly speaker, gestures while speaking during the dedication of the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Bridge at Treasure Island in February 2014. AP

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown suggested Friday that Antonio Villaraigosa should pass on the U.S. Senate race out of allegiance to fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, the only announced candidate for the 2016 contest.

“His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that,” Brown told The Sacramento Bee outside the Ben Ali Shrine Center in Sacramento, where he appeared for a workshop on card-room regulations.

Harris, the state’s attorney general and a former San Francisco district attorney, had a personal relationship with Brown. But Brown said Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker and mayor of Los Angeles, was “like a young son of mine for years.”

“I am hopeful that his candidacy will be rewarded with a statewide office – at some point,” Brown said.

A spokesman for Villaraigosa declined to comment.

Hours earlier, Villaraigosa brushed off the subject of whether he’ll run while addressing a roomful of mayors in Washington, D.C.

“I just want you to know that there’s press here in the back of the room,” Villaraigosa said Thursday night. “So I have an important announcement to make: The dessert will be served in just a moment.”

Asked by reporters about his Senate deliberations, he added: “I really don’t have anything else to say right now.”

His comments came two weeks after a rare break in the state’s political logjam. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced Jan. 8 that she would not run for re-election in 2016. Harris announced her candidacy several days later.

On Friday, California Treasurer John Chiang, who is from Los Angeles, said through a spokesman that he was taking himself out of contention for Senate. Other Democrats still weighing bids include Reps. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove and Adam Schiff of Burbank. On the Republican side, a pair of former state GOP leaders, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, are looking at the race.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, who has spoken with Villaraigosa and Harris, said this week he’s excited to see the next generation of Democrats get a chance to challenge for a major office. If both decide to run, “it will be an exciting race with two extraordinarily talented and capable candidates,” Davis said.

Davis said Villaraigosa should be afforded one or two months to decide whether he wants to run, particularly because he was originally focused on putting together a campaign to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown when he steps down in 2018.

“I would not get too concerned if 30 days goes by before you get any definitive decision,” Davis said. “It’s unreasonable to expect people to make that decision in just a few days.”

Villaraigosa signaled his interest in the post soon after Boxer’s announcement, but Harris was the first and so far only candidate to officially wade into the race. Several top Democrats rallied behind her, prompting some Latino leaders to worry publicly that Harris’ backers were not respecting the state’s ethnic and regional diversity.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, said the rush to support Harris overlooks the state’s growing Latino population, as well as the millions of people who live outside the Bay Area.

“We are a segment of the Democratic base that is not even being talked about,” Perea said.

Brown and other Democratic leaders are pushing back on that notion. Brown, a former San Francisco mayor, said “there’s nothing to that.”

“People in the world of politics always attempt, as best they can, to make the world believe it’s only them,” Brown said. “Harris is doing that, and she’s not doing it on the basis of race, she’s doing it on the basis that she is clearly an attractive candidate; she clearly has won statewide on more than one occasion, she clearly is bright and able, and she’s got the national relationships that can help produce the money.”

He added: “That’s just part of the ploy. That’s what you do. If I am trying to figure out how to get somebody to run, I’ll use whatever there is available to me. But Northern California has for years been the lifeblood of Democrats, period.”

John Burton, the state Democratic Party chairman, was blunt when asked if party leaders are trying to clear the field for Harris.

“Bull----,” said Burton, a former state and federal lawmaker.

“When I ran – whatever the hell I ran for – I got (into the races) early,” he said. “And getting out early is good, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Burton said people are entitled to their opinions. “I can see how some people feel,” he said. But he downplayed Harris’ early support from Democratic U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

“If I was running in California, I would rather have some guy who has 112 relatives than some guy elected in New Jersey or Massachusetts,” Burton said. “That ain’t an avalanche. That’s irrelevant to the election.”

Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story. Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee