Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- a one-time student organizer, union leader and now one of the nation's most prominent Latino politicians -- stepped into his role Wednesday as the face of a Democratic Party convention that is being pitched as the most open ever.
"This is an effort to spread our wings and really include a cross-section of people," Villaraigosa said in a conference call a day after it was announced he would be the convention chairman. "It's not just about voting. It's about getting people engaged at every level of our democracy."
The mayor, who is believed by many to have higher political ambitions, saw his past return to haunt him in the brief conference call when a reporter from a Charlotte TV station asked how the party would deal with the affair that ended his marriage and allegations that he has engaged in nepotism as mayor.
"We won't," said Steve Kerrigan, the convention's chief executive. The mayor did not comment.
The mayor indicated that he supports same-sex marriage, but the decision on whether to include that position in the party's platform will be up to the committee that writes it.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, nominated Villaraigosa for the post. "Mayor Villaraigosa has dedicated his career to civic engagement and empowering people at the grass-roots," she said, noting that he also serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and so "serves symbolically as America's mayor." "We're excited to have his energy and his voice."
Villaraigosa stressed that as convention chairman he will reach out to all Americans, saying he has a track record of doing just that as a politician. But he also acknowledged that having a Latino convention chairman will help the party reach that critical voting bloc.
"Yes, I will be reaching out to Latino voters," he said. "There's a benefit to being bilingual."
He declined to speculate on how much of the Latino vote Obama would likely win. Obama disappointed many Latinos by not pushing for immigration reform when he had a Democratic Congress despite his campaign promise to make it a top priority. "I expect that the president is going to get an overwhelming percentage of the Latino vote," Villaraigosa said.
Villaraigosa, in a suit jacket and open-necked shirt, taped two video messages, in English and Spanish, asking people to weigh in on "how to make this convention your convention." The party still has a little work to do on its pledge of inclusiveness. At the time of the conference call, only the English version could be found on the convention's website.
"Let's do something differently this year. Let's build a convention that brings us together, that strengthens the nation and creates opportunity for all Americans," the mayor says in the 59-second English version, smiling broadly and standing in a room with a grandfather clock and fireplace.
The party plans to launch the convention with a Labor Day event Sept. 3 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and end it Sept. 6 with the president accepting the nomination at Bank of America Stadium. Both venues will allow many people beyond just party activists to attend.
Villaraigosa will not officially take charge as convention chairman until his nomination is approved at the beginning of the event, but will have an unofficial role until then, helping to organize the event, speaking on the party's behalf and raising money. As chairman, he will preside over the proceedings, from nominating the ticket to adopting the platform.
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