02/27/2015 01:11 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2015

Exit Antonio: Will Former LA Mayor Villaraigosa, Now Out of the Senate Race, Run At Last for Governor?

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's announcement earlier this week that he will not run next year for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Barbara Boxer came as something of a surprise, at least at this early date. Key associates of his had passed word that he would likely make the race. The announcement furthers the early lead of the still rather lightly known California Attorney General Kamala Harris but leaves open the question of Villaraigosa's political future, not to mention that of Latinos running for the top offices in California.

After the announcement, Villaraigosa journeyed to the Latino Legislative Caucus retreat in Napa to discuss the situation. There he told politicians who don't seem all that anxious to unite behind Harris, the daughter of an Indian physician mother and a Jamaican economist father, that his heart lies closer to home than Washington. Thus he kept the door very much open for a potential run for governor -- the office he began to seek in 2009 before deferring to Jerry Brown -- in 2018 when Brown will be prevented by term limits from winning a fifth term.

Two other Latino pols are keeping their names in the mix. But I don't see either Orange County Supervisor Loretta Sanchez or LA Congressman Xavier Becerra having the fundraising capacity or name ID needed to take on Harris, a key early backer of President Barack Obama. Running for Senate would require them to give up safe House seats. And Becerra is doing a nice job of ascending House Democratic leadership ranks.

I'll have more to say about the Senate race, which is a bit on the curious side, another time. Back to Villaraigosa, whom I got to know when he was an effective speaker of the state Assembly in the late '90s.

With eight years as mayor of the nation's second largest city, and a couple more as Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa is as seasoned a potential candidate as California Democrats have aside from Brown and Senator Dianne Feinstein. And at a couple moments in his career, he seemed to be catching fire, on the verge of a drive to the top offices in California and beyond. But it hasn't quite happened.

When he first ran for mayor of LA, back in 2001, my old paper, the LA Weekly, practically canonized him. A latter-day Latino FDR and JFK all rolled into one, he could do no wrong. Most of liberal and lefty LA felt the city would change dramatically with his election, then the governorship and beyond would beckon. Though I liked him, I had some doubt about that. In any event, my focus was on California's dramatic energy crisis and the governorship itself, then held by Gray Davis, an old friend whom I alternately helped and criticized over the years.

Then the unthinkable happened. Villaraigosa lost, to the relatively plodding Jimmy Hahn.

That wasn't supposed to happen. Villaraigosa was heading out of office, not sure of his next move.

The following year, I found myself on a farmworkers march up the Central Valley. Villaraigosa had joined in and brought his son along. We spent the best part of a hot and dusty day walking and talking up along Highway 99. He was smart and thoughtful, a good guy, still pondering his course (he was to park himself on the LA City Council the following year), the charisma still there, along with the drive and ambition.

In 2005, he ran again for mayor and this time beat Hahn, the incumbent mayor. The campaign had been more moderate, less the magical crusade. But once he won the office, another form of magic descended ... Winning. The Future.

Magazine covers ensued. Network profiles. Latino politics had seemingly at last come of age, and not just as a generic edge for Democrats, the lasting impact of Kathleen Brown's controversial-within-the-party decision to focus her losing 1994 gubernatorial campaign against Republican Governor Pete Wilson on opposition to his draconian anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187.

As mayor of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa personified the implicit promise of Latino politics. I was on hand when he made his first visit to California's capital as LA mayor. It was like a major presidential candidate coming to town. All that was missing was the Secret Service.

Then things started going wrong.

Villaraigosa was in constant motion all over LA. Action, action, action. But when you pulled back from the freneticism, it looked more like activity, activity, activity. Where was the focus?

Then came intense personal controversy, in the form of the end of Villaraigosa's seeming storybook marriage and revelation of an affair with a foxy Latina newscaster.

This was a big distraction in one of the gossip capitals of the world, not to mention a big problem with Villaraigosa's heavily Catholic base.

Villaraigosa nevertheless managed to regain some momentum with a focus on transit and educational issues. Rather courageously for a guy who'd been an organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, he took on some of the orthodoxies of the teachers union/public education establishment. He made progress on a transition to renewable energy. And he made headway on the subway to the sea, long a hope of Congressman Henry Waxman.

After losing a political gamble as a national campaign co-chairman for Hillary Clinton in 2008, he made ready to run for governor in 2010.

But there were two big problems, neither of which was Gavin Newsom (who has already declared his 2018 gubernatorial candidacy). One was Jerry Brown. It emerged that, as I'd suspected, Brown actually led Villaraigosa in LA. The other, as that reality would imply, concerned Villaraigosa's own 2009 re-election as LA mayor. Even though his opposition was essentially minor and/or fringe, he was fortunate to avoid a run-off. Not long after, Villaraigosa pulled out of the governor's face, praising Brown who in turn praised him. It took awhile longer for Newsom to accede to the obvious.

Villaraigosa made some more progress in his second term as mayor, but the bloom hadn't really returned to the rose.

He was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Obama named him chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. But a hoped for major Cabinet post proved elusive.

When he left office, Villaraigosa, who'd never made any real money and had family education needs to think of, set up a portfolio of consultancies as well as a think tank at USC.

Then the U.S. Senate seat came open.

Federal races are harder to raise money for than state races, with much lower contribution limits. Being out of office doesn't help. And the national and world issues that the Senate concerns itself with are largely different as well. There are lots of ways to screw up.The press is currently trying to get Harris to discuss the controversy over Israel's prime minister coming to Washington to address Congress on Iran at the invitation of the Republican leadership rather than Obama. Even an expert would have a challenge threading that political needle.

On the other hand, a governor's race is much more familiar turf. Most observers I know felt Harris, as attorney general and a woman, would have been the candidate to beat. She had seemed much more focused on running for governor prior to jumping into the Senate race.

Gavin Newsom is running for governor in 2018. Unlike Villaraigosa, he's in office. But he's the lieutenant governor, with little staff or opportunity to do much unless Brown deputizes him.

Newsom didn't help himself there with his earlier campaign for governor, in which he didn't show much other than opposition to Brown. At one point, there was joking talk of running popular First Dog Sutter Brown for lieutenant governor instead, though relations are much better now.

Can a former mayor of Los Angeles and former Assembly speaker take on a former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor? Put that way, sure.

The trouble for Villaraigosa comes in being out of office for five years by the time the California primary rolls around in 2018, and in the theory that the San Francisco Bay Area is a much more reliable voting base than metropolitan Los Angeles.

And there are two x-factors. Can the Latino community be galvanized to turn out in decisive numbers?And will voters think that the lieutenant governorship is a more important office than it really is?

They did in 1998, paying off on Gray Davis's move shifting over from the more powerful office of state controller. His research showed that many voters thought of the LG as a deputy governor. Of course, Jerry Brown could dispel that impression about Newsom with a few well-chosen wisecracks.

Will Villaraigosa complete the journey his fans believed him to be on not all that long ago? You may insert the customary cliche.

Facebook comments are closed on this article.

William Bradley Archive