Villaraigosa told The Times that he is prepared to challenge incumbent Nick Pacheco in the March election to represent the 14th Council District, which includes parts of Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and Mount Washington.
The campaign promises to be an expensive and hard-fought contest. Both men are proven fund-raisers, and Pacheco recently said he would attack Villaraigosa's character if the former speaker entered the race.
For his part, Villaraigosa said he is ready for the battle after a 17-month respite from politics.
"I was born and raised in Boyle Heights, and I've lived in this community my entire life," said Villaraigosa, who recently moved into the district to run for the seat. "It's a part of the city that deserves more effective representation."
Although some City Hall insiders speculated that Villaraigosa would use the position as a steppingstone to run against Mayor James K. Hahn in two years, the former legislator said he intends to complete the four-year council term if he is elected.
"Should the people honor me with their support, I believe I have to unequivocally say to them that I intend to fulfill my full term, " he said.
The mayor declined to comment Wednesday on Villaraigosa's decision. His candidacy presents the mayor with the prospect of a City Council that could include a man he defeated and a man he ousted: former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who is running in the 9th District.
Pacheco, a staunch Hahn supporter, said he is prepared to face the challenge.
"I feel really good about it," the councilman said Wednesday. "I just want to continue doing my job. I know Antonio is looking for a title.... You have a clear choice between Nick Pacheco, who cares about the community, and Antonio Villaraigosa, who cares about his political career."
Indeed, city political pundits said they anticipate that the race between the two will turn into "war."
"It's going to be very, very aggressive by both camps," said political consultant Rick Taylor. "I don't think anyone goes in as a front-runner. "Nick has the edge, because he is the incumbent and he has the power of the office itself. On the other hand, Antonio is somewhat of a folk hero in the community. He will be a challenger who understands what goes into a political campaign."
After losing to Hahn in the 2001 election, Villaraigosa -- who spent six years in the Legislature, including two as Assembly speaker -- announced that he was taking a break from politics so he could spend more time with his family and work on a variety of corporate and nonprofit projects.
In recent months, he has co-chaired an effort to build a biomedical research park at USC. He has also been serving as a senior USC fellow coordinating urban issue forums.
Villaraigosa said that, although he has enjoyed the work, he misses public office. He spent the last few months debating whether to enter the race for the 14th Council District. Some people urged him to run for Congress or another state office, Villaraigosa said, but he wants to get back into politics in Los Angeles.
"I believe if we are going to make L.A. the great city of the world, L.A. has to grow together," Villaraigosa said. "We have left some communities behind. I want to work hard to do the small things and the big things to make the district a great and vibrant place to live."
During last year's redistricting of council districts, Pacheco's was realigned to include most of Mount Washington, but not the block where Villaraigosa lived. Villaraigosa accuses Pacheco of "gerrymandering" the boundaries to keep the former legislator in the 1st District. Pacheco denies the allegation.
The 1st District seat is not open in the March election. As a result, Villaraigosa moved his family a month ago to a rental house near Eagle Rock so he could run in the 14th District.
Villaraigosa and Pacheco have sparred before. Some of their animosity goes back to four years ago, when Villaraigosa backed Pacheco's opponent in the council race, Victor Griego.
Relations worsened during the mayoral campaign, when a nonprofit group set up by Pacheco emerged as a peripheral player in a controversial automated phone call placed to thousands of residents by the mayoral campaign of Rep. Xavier Becerra, whom Pacheco supported. Pacheco's group owned the phone bank that was used to make the calls, in which a woman impersonating Supervisor Gloria Molina attacked Villaraigosa's mayoral bid. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley looked into the matter but decided not to prosecute anyone over it.
After the incident, Pacheco went to work aggressively raising money for his reelection bid because he anticipated that Molina and Villaraigosa would organize against him.
So far, Pacheco has raised more than $300,000 for his council race. Villaraigosa, meanwhile, cannot start raising money until he files this week to run for office.
Pacheco is also actively seeking endorsements. On Wednesday, Richard Riordan promised over lunch that he would support Pacheco, even though the former mayor actively campaigned for Villaraigosa in his race against Hahn.
"He's been loyal to me all along," Riordan said of Pacheco. "He has done a good job on the City Council. I'm supporting him."
Taylor, meanwhile, said he believes that Villaraigosa's political career is at stake.
"I think Nick Pacheco will give Antonio the run of his life," Taylor said. "I think Antonio understands the political situation.
"If he isn't successful, it will mean he will probably leave public service as a career and continue on in the private sector," Taylor added. "I'm not saying it is a do-or-die situation, but you only get a few chances in politics, and he's rolling the dice on this one."