The next governor of California will inherit a crippling housing crisis, crumbling roads, an ongoing drought that could last forever, a looming pension crisis, failing schools, rampant homelessness and regular ravages by megafires, mudslides and floods. The state is running a budget surplus for the moment, but economists say California's economy is overdue for a downturn.
Even in the best of times, the job of running the nation's most populous state requires a particular set of talents that few possess. Successful governors must be visionary leaders but also adroit politicians who can wield the bully pulpit and the power of persuasion to wrangle an often-recalcitrant Legislature. They need the skills and charisma to build coalitions — but also the strength of character to make decisions that may be unpopular with longtime allies or powerful interests. The best governors are savvy, compassionate, resilient and resourceful.
None of the 27 candidates in this year's crowded race for governor has demonstrated all of those qualities. But Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles and speaker of the state Assembly, comes closest. His skills and experience governing a city facing hard times make him our choice in the June primary election.
Villaraigosa served two terms as mayor, from 2005 to 2013. He stumbled at times — especially early on when he approved overly generous raises of between 14% and 25% over five years for 22,000 city employees, a decision he now correctly refers to as "a mistake." He made brash promises — 1,000 new cops, a mayoral takeover of L.A. schools and 1 million new trees, to name the most prominent ones; none of those promises was quite fulfilled.
But when the worst economic recession of modern times hit, Villaraigosa stepped up. In 2009, as Los Angeles grappled with a projected budget shortfall that was expected to reach $1 billion by 2013 (thanks in part to the imprudent pay raises), he pushed through deep and unpopular — but necessary — cuts to programs and city services. Two years later, he slashed paychecks, furloughed employees and rolled back pension benefits. This made the former labor organizer the enemy of the most powerful force in City Hall, public employee unions. We give him credit for this not because we are hostile to labor unions or pleased to see services or salaries cut, but because in the city, as in the state, budgets have to be balanced, leaders have to learn to say no and fiscal responsibility can't be tossed aside.
By the end of his tenure, Villaraigosa had increased the LAPD to nearly 10,000 officers, seen crime drop to historic lows and persuaded voters to adopt Measure R, a bold and transformative sales tax to fund long-term transportation projects like the subway to the sea — in 2008, no less, when the national economy was melting down. His bid for mayoral control of the Los Angeles Unified School District — which he hoped would help him turn around the city's underperforming schools — was not successful, but he didn't give up the fight; the Partnership for L.A. Schools that he created took over some 18 low-performing schools and has done a creditable job leading them.
Villaraigosa also has substantive experience in state government. As speaker of the California Assembly in the late 1990s, his coalition-building skills were heralded, evident in legislation such as the deal to regulate polluting diesel trucks and passage of a bill limiting handgun purchases to one a month.
Villaraigosa is a complicated character with a big ego and a thin skin. We have our qualms about him. It has not been reassuring that in his post-mayoral years he has served as a consultant to Herbalife, a multilevel marketing company of nutritional supplements that has been the target of investigation for allegedly exploiting its heavily Latino workforce. Villaraigosa also worked for Cadiz, a water speculation company owned by a good friend of his that has been scheming to suck up groundwater from the Mojave Desert to sell to thirsty cities. Everyone is entitled to make a living, but we question some of Villaraigosa's career judgments.
Still, he is the best choice in the field. The political courage he demonstrated as mayor bringing fiscal discipline to a city in crisis will serve him well in Sacramento if he is elected.
The only other candidate in the race who comes close is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is articulate and deeply knowledgeable about state politics and policy. He has shown leadership on several big issues, including gun control, marijuana legalization and, most famously, on gay marriage. The world was mesmerized in 2004 when Newsom, then the mayor of San Francisco, ordered the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Critics, however, describe Newsom as a whirlwind of ambition, lacking in core values and meaningful accomplishments, with little demonstrated ability to build alliances and coalitions. He has flip-flopped on key issues, such as high-speed rail and immigration, and offered unsatisfactory explanations for changing positions. San Francisco is a small city with overwhelmingly progressive politics; even his boldest steps didn't require big political risks, nor were his successes as difficult to accomplish as they would have been in a bigger and more heterogeneous city like Los Angeles.
Though Villaraigosa and Newsom have shared experiences as mayors (both, for instance, went through bruising and embarrassing sex scandals during their City Hall years), it is Villaraigosa who is the more seasoned and tested politician.
A few words about the other prominent candidates in the race: Wealthy Republican businessman John Cox has no experience in government other than failed bids for office in Illinois and unsuccessful ballot initiatives in California. Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) is running as a Trump Mini-Me, pandering to the right with irresponsible positions contrary to those held by most Californians. The other two well-known Democrats in the race, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, just don't have the experience or the chops to serve as chief executive of this massive government. Chiang — for whom we initially had high hopes — has been surprisingly unwilling to take strong stances or unpopular positions. None of the other 21 people on the ballot are prepared to be governor.
Villaraigosa would be the first Latino governor of California since Romualdo Pacheco, a Californio who served briefly in 1875. Surely that would be something to celebrate in a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic group. That, however, is not the reason to vote for him. The reason to vote for him is that having served successfully as a legislative leader in Sacramento and as mayor during tough times in Los Angeles, he is more prepared for the job than his rivals. We urge voters to choose Antonio Villaraigosa in the June 5 primary.