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Antonio Villaraigosa, former L.A. mayor, jumps into the California governor's race

Antonio Villaraigosa, former L.A. mayor, jumps into the California governor's race
Antonio Villaraigosa at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday began his 2018 bid for governor after a three-year hiatus from the political limelight, joining a heady field of candidates that is expected to grow larger in the months ahead.

The former mayor, who was raised by a single mother in Boyle Heights, said his campaign will focus on rebuilding the middle class and assisting Californians who have been "left behind" in the new economy, along with improving public schools and repairing the state's deteriorating roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

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In announcing, Villaraigosa took a shot at President-elect Donald Trump, whom the former mayor has criticized in the past for anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"I'm running because I think the answer to the divisiveness we see in the country right now is unity, and the answer to fear is hope," Villaraigosa said in a telephone interview with The Times.

"I'm going to reach out to unions, to business, to every interest group in every part of the state. Because my candidacy is about the public interest," he said. "I'll call them as I see them. I'll be as fair as the day is long."

The Villaraigosa campaign on Thursday blasted out an email asking for Californians' support — and the most generous contribution supporters could afford.

The Democrat's decision and new website come after months of relatively quiet, subtle moves to drift back into the consciousness of the California electorate, including an extended "listening tour" through the drought-ravaged Central Valley, where he worked to familiarize himself with the state's water crisis and its impact on California's billion-dollar agricultural industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.

Though Villaraigosa remains a familiar political figure in California, he will face tough competition among fellow Democrats.

Longtime political rival Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, launched his campaign in February 2015 and has been feverishly raising money ever since. State Treasurer John Chiang of Torrance also has jumped into the race, as has Delaine Eastin, who served eight years as California's top education official. Former state Controller Steve Westly and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire, also are considering gubernatorial bids.

Former mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa speaks at the Democratic National Convention about immigration. More coverage at latimes.com/trailguide.

"I clearly have a lot of ground to make up and I'm going to start making it up today. I'm the underdog. I think that's pretty clear," Villaraigosa said.

He flirted with a run for governor in 2010, shortly after the beginning of his second term as mayor. But the formidable Jerry Brown appeared to have the Democratic nomination in his grasp early in that race. Villaraigosa ultimately decided he couldn’t "leave this city in the middle of a crisis" as Los Angeles struggled to recover from the economic ravages of the Great Recession. At the time, L.A. was attempting to whittle down a $530-million budget deficit, a 12.5% unemployment rate and a flood of home foreclosures.

However, the allure of the top statewide office never faded.  Just days after he left office as mayor, Villaraigosa said he wanted to run for governor. When Sen. Barbara Boxer announced in January 2015 that she would not seek reelection, the former mayor spent weeks considering a possible run for her seat. But, again, the grail of a California governor's office once occupied by Earl Warren, Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan beckoned.

For Villaraigosa, whose eight years as L.A. mayor came to a quiet end in 2013, the challenge will be to recapture the political electricity that enveloped him in 2005, when the former Assembly speaker and Los Angeles city councilman made history by becoming L.A.'s first Latino mayor since 1872.

Villaraigosa's victory at the time was seen as a harbinger of rising "Latino Power," which was the headline on a Newsweek magazine cover adorned with his picture.

He quickly embraced the urban revival underway in downtown and Hollywood, and successfully led the campaign for Measure R, a $35-billion transportation package passed by voters in 2008 that imposed a countywide half-cent sales tax. The measure is credited with reshaping the region's notoriously inefficient transit system. Under his watch, the city also hired hundreds of new police officers and violent crime plummeted.

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But during his tenure, the city also struggled to cope with plummeting revenues amid the nation's economic downturn. He wrestled for concessions from public employee unions that were necessary, in part, because of raises he had approved before the recession.

Villaraigosa has said that his biggest failing and disappointment during his time as mayor was personal: the breakup of his marriage, which occurred after he acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a television newscaster. It's unclear if his political image has fully recovered. The same could be said for Newsom, who had a highly publicized affair with his former campaign manager's wife while serving as San Francisco mayor.

In August, 63-year-old Villaraigosa remarried, tying the knot with Patricia Govea in a wedding ceremony in Mexico. They now live in a contemporary house in Hollywood Hills, with impressive views of downtown L.A. and the Hollywood sign.

After leaving office, Villaraigosa has worked as an advisor to controversial nutritional products company Herbalife Ltd., which could become a political vulnerability. He also did work for the Banc of California and the global public relations firm Edelman, and has been a part-time professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Over the last six months, Villaraigosa has slowly inserted himself back into the political scene. In June, he formed a political action committee —  Building Bridges, Not Walls — to combat anti-immigrant policies trumpeted by Donald Trump, and a month later at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he ripped Trump for proposing a mass deportation of immigrants in the country illegally.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said Trump's election could become a major asset for Villaraigosa, predicting Latinos and Democrats in California will be highly motivated to go to the polls in 2018.

"Running for governor during Donald Trump's midterm election boosts his political stock tremendously," Schnur said. "By the time this is all over, Villaraigosa will have put pictures of Donald Trump on his campaign posters."

Twitter: @philwillon 

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3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Schnur.

11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes and details from an interview with Villaraigosa.

This article was originally published at 9:15 a.m.

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