Joe Mathews: Focus on Villaraigosa as the Latino candidate did a disservice to California

Antonio Villaraigosa, shown speaking to the Sacramento Press Club in 2013, announced last week that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Antonio Villaraigosa, shown speaking to the Sacramento Press Club in 2013, announced last week that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2016. Associated Press file

It shouldn’t matter much to Californians whether Antonio Villaraigosa gets to be a U.S. senator or governor someday. But it should matter whether he gets to be Antonio Villaraigosa.

The former Los Angeles mayor didn’t get that opportunity over the past six weeks, as he pondered and ultimately decided against a Senate campaign. Instead, in the media coverage and public discussion of the political drama, he was portrayed as one thing above all – the Latino candidate.

Villaraigosa’s supporters expressed hopes that he would be a historic Latino candidate. Opponents pointedly said Latinos don’t vote at high rates, as they urged him to skip the race and support Attorney General Kamala Harris. And then critics of those opponents claimed that pushing him out of the race was an insult to Latinos.

The media gleefully played up the possibility of conflict between Latinos and African Americans backing Harris, who is African American and Indian American. And when Villaraigosa announced last week that he would not run – hinting at a preference to run for governor in 2018 – the absence of his Latino-ness from the race was mourned.

In the face of this relentless ethnic reductionism, the best response may be: ay ay ay.

If one of this era’s most complicated, accomplished and frustrating Californians can be defined so narrowly, then what hope do the other 38 million of us have to be considered as full and complex humans, products not only of our heritage but also of our deeds and dreams?

While media and political figures may think all the Latino talk is a celebration of a rising demographic, such conversation can sound like an attempt to cage an incredibly diverse array of 15 million Californians in a single minority box. And that in turn perpetuates the societal assumption – still maddeningly prevalent in 2015 California – that Anglos define the mainstream.

The recent Villaraigosa coverage demonstrates the durability and absurdity of this mindset. Put simply, it’s hard to think of a more mainstream California politician than a former Assembly speaker and two-term mayor of Los Angeles, or a more interesting one. But it was hard to find details of the real, kaleidoscopic Villaraigosa story in the recent coverage.

There was only a tiny bit about his terms in Sacramento in the late 1990s, and momentous legislative decisions on energy, budgets and pensions. And there was precious little assessment of his eight years as mayor, which saw dramatic victories in policing and public transit and dramatic defeats in education and the local economy.

The central questions that should be asked about a politician went unanswered: How does he make decisions? Did his tenure leave his city better or worse off? What would be his policy priorities as a senator?

The irony of this focus on Villaraigosa’s ethnic identity is that the mayor spent so much of his time in office reaching out to different communities (he attended more bar mitzvahs than many rabbis) that he was criticized for neglecting the details of governing.

Conversation about our diverse backgrounds is great. But not when it comes at the expense of substantive questioning. I’m still amazed how heavily media coverage of my high school friend Leondra Kruger’s appointment to the California Supreme Court focused on her youth and the fact she’s African American, while saying little about what kind of judge she might be.

One downside to California’s ethnic obsession is the degree to which it prevents us from embracing our shared origins as Californians. The majority of Californians, for the first time in modern history, have been born and raised in the state. So while it’s worth noting that Villaraigosa’s parents and grandparents came from a different place than those of rival politicians, that fact should take a back seat to discussions of his record and ideas for the state.

Our next governor and senator need to be standard-bearers for one demographic that gets neglected in our obsessing over identity: Californians.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.