Just after he was named speaker of the California Assembly, Antonio Villaraigosa got a pat-on-the-back phone call from the White House. But the call was not from the usual California watcher in the Oval Office: It came from Al Gore.
Gore did not limit himself to mere congratulations. He cheerfully wished Villaraigosa a happy birthday, then went on to remember his wife and his children, leaving the new speaker impressed by the vice president's homework.
"I told him, 'You are good,' and I started laughing," recalled Villaraigosa, 45, the East Los Angeles native who won the leadership post in January.
In President Clinton's White House, the Golden State long has been a coveted property. Clinton has visited it repeatedly, nurtured friendships and steered federal dollars its way--all part of a campaign to capture California's cache of 54 electoral votes and to cultivate its huge delegation in Congress.
Yet now, as Gore arrives in California for his fourth visit in six weeks, a little-noted but far-reaching shift is in the air. Increasingly, it is Gore rather than Clinton who is popping up in the state to announce new programs, sympathize with disaster victims or schmooze with groups ranging from Latinos to teachers to professional politicians.
Gore, not Clinton, used the platform of an AFL-CIO convention here to blast California's Proposition 226 that would restrict the use of union dues for political purposes. While a potentially controversial stand, it is a key test among labor leaders who could play a role in Gore's political future.
And today, at a middle school in Anaheim, Gore plans to announce a White House plan to help California school districts issue $112 million in bonds to update facilities over the next year, part of a larger proposal for $2.3 billion in state and local school bonds.
"The vice president is trying to get to the point where his ties and his relationships in the state are as strong as the president's have been," said Ron Klain, Gore's chief of staff.
The goal, Klain said, is for Gore's future trips to the region (two more are already being considered) "to be as varied as California is and to try to cover all parts of the state." For his part, Clinton has visited California just once in 1998--and he took time off for a family reunion in Utah.
In a frenetic, two-day rush, Gore plans sessions with teachers, African American business executives, pro-Israel advocates, Los Angeles police officials and Democratic activists. On Saturday, he will deliver the keynote speech at the state Democratic convention.
Dan Schnur, Republican strategist, compared Gore's emerging shift from a supporting actor to a leading role in California to a long-awaited inheritance. "It's like a CEO getting ready to retire and give the business to his son," said Schnur, whose brother Jon advises Gore on education. "Now Clinton is giving Gore the California account. It's a smart thing to do. Gore will benefit by spending time in California."
Certainly, Gore's association with Clinton may not prove as much of an asset as it once seemed, as the president continues to deal with a barrage of allegations about his conduct. According to a recent Field Poll of California voters, Gore's approval ratings in the state may have slipped slightly from February, although 59% still approve of the job he is doing, with 22% unsatisfied.
Moreover, for all of his political experience, some question whether Gore's restrained public style--often "wooden"--will further block his efforts to win over the state.
"There's no question that he's qualified to be president--but do people like him?" asked Art Torres, the state Democratic Party chairman.
"I think he has the charisma. I think he has the ability to reach out to people," Torres quickly added. "But sometimes the stiff image has followed him. Still he needs to reach out."
The "California account" at the White House is providing the vice president a noteworthy opportunity to do just that. Gore represented the administration in a visit to flood-stricken areas in Northern California earlier this year, a visit that was still on people's minds weeks later, Torres said.
With little fanfare, Gore has also enhanced the California-savvy of his personal staff, recruiting top aides who have worked for Rep. Vic Fazio, the Sacramento Democrat and former House leader, and Al Checchi, a businessman from Beverly Hills who wants to be governor. Gore's key political aide in the White House, Karen Skelton, hails from California, and his small personal staff includes a speech writer, lobbyist and "rebuilding government" expert who have lived in the state.
"We hope this will be a learning experience for him," said Schnur, reflecting conservative arguments that the Clinton-Gore approach to regulation, the environment and other areas has taken energy out of the state economy.
But by all accounts, it is an experience that Gore is enjoying. San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer recalled in an interview how the vice president has shown interest in her Silicon Valley region repeatedly and taken time to get to know her, once even chatting with her about elderly parents during a mayor's conference.
A few weeks ago, she returned the good will, hosting a dinner for Gore and 28 guests, ranging from grassroots political activists to lawyers to business executives.
The vice president took turns sitting at each of the three tables, joining one group for salad of smoked sturgeon and salmon, moving on to another for the chicken entree and finishing up with hazelnut merengue and apricot sorbet at yet another table, conversing happily along the way.
"At one point, Karen [Skelton] came up to me and said: 'We really have to get him out of here,' " recalled Hammer. "And it had been about two and a half hours."