Antonio Villaraigosa arrived in his old Capitol stamping grounds this week as California Democrats’ best asset -- a handsome, popular mayor blessed with rapidly burgeoning national name recognition.
Amid the adulation on the mayor’s two-day victory tour here, some Democrats were a little wistful for a candidacy that probably will not be -- at least not anytime soon.
Democratic activists are looking for someone to knock off Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next year. The maverick Republican once seemed invincible but is now suffering a spate of low poll numbers. On Tuesday, Villaraigosa insisted that it won’t be him.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store right now -- I love being mayor of the city that I was born in, raised in, that my grandpa came to 100 years ago,” Villaraigosa said. “I’m going to be mayor of the city of Los Angeles for the next four years.”
That announcement was unsurprising to Democratic insiders. They understand that Villaraigosa, who didn’t complete his term as a city councilman, needs to fulfill his commitment in Los Angeles. But some also feel that the current candidates -- Steve Westly, the state controller, and Phil Angelides, the state treasurer -- lack the mayor’s A-list charisma.
To them, Villaraigosa seems like a wasted chance.
“Schwarzenegger looks like the Titanic -- he’s a sinking ship,” said a high-placed Democratic Assembly staffer who asked not to be identified. “But we have no great Democratic hope who can match his TV charisma.”
Villaraigosa has that charisma, the staffer said, adding dolefully: “He’s always wanted to be mayor of L.A.”
Yolanda Sandoval, a former Villaraigosa Assembly staffer, accepted the fact a little more stoically.
“That’s just the way it goes,” Sandoval said during a reception for the mayor in the Capitol rotunda Monday. “So -- in due time.”
The mayor’s trip was his first to Sacramento since his swearing-in July 1. It was a return to a town he knows well, having served as Assembly speaker, one of the most powerful jobs in the capital, from 1998 to 2000.
Villaraigosa was mainly looking for funding for L.A.'s homeland security and transportation projects.
But the visit also came during a season of swagger for Democratic legislators, who feel they are emerging from the shadow of the governor, who once famously dared to dismiss them as girlie-men.
The Democrats believe Schwarzenegger is in a political free-fall. In a poll conducted this month by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 34% of those surveyed approved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance, compared with 65% a year ago.
The governor has said the decline is the result of his bold reform agenda, which has “upset the status quo” -- and some powerful labor unions -- in Sacramento.
Key to the governor’s agenda are three initiatives he has endorsed on a Nov. 8 special election ballot. They would limit state spending, make it easier to fire bad teachers and take legislative redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers. None of those initiatives, the survey showed, is supported by a majority of voters.
Instead of going after Schwarzenegger on Tuesday morning, Villaraigosa chummed it up with the governor and asked him to send more money to L.A. After a closed-door meeting, the pair held a friendly news conference in the governor’s office. They described the areas where they agreed Los Angeles needed help: traffic, antiterrorism funding and tax credits to help keep movie jobs in town.
The smiling governor stuck to his trademark superlatives, describing both the mayor and the meeting as “terrific.”
Villaraigosa smiled back, announcing that the governor supported a high-priority transportation project the mayor has been touting: a carpool lane on the 405 Freeway between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
Reporters asked Villaraigosa whether he planned to run for governor and then asked again at an afternoon news conference with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
Both times, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t going anywhere -- for now.
“He’s the guy who represents the state,” Villaraigosa said in Spanish, nodding to Nunez, his longtime supporter. “I represent the city of Los Angeles. And for me, it’s an honor to serve as mayor of Los Angeles.”
But for some of Villaraigosa’s supporters, it has been tempting to look ahead. This week, the Assembly speaker’s staff was wincing over a gaffe Nunez made during his recent trip to Mexico.
“Antonio Villaraigosa will be the next governor,” Nunez said, apparently forgetting about Westly and Angelides.
Nunez spokesman Vince Duffy said it was an understandable slip-up, given the attention Villaraigosa has drawn since his election.
“His gravitas and momentum and charisma create this atmosphere of irrational exuberance,” Duffy said, adding that the state’s Democrats tend to overlook Villaraigosa’s desire to lead Los Angeles.
Longtime political observers note that until Schwarzenegger arrived on the scene, charisma wasn’t a requirement for an aspiring governor. Schwarzenegger’s predecessors, Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, often came across as bland technocrats.
With Villaraigosa maintaining that he is not interested, some Democratic insiders are wondering whether Gavin Newsom, the telegenic mayor of San Francisco, might jump in. Or perhaps a Hollywood iconoclast from the left, like Rob Reiner or Warren Beatty.
Political consultant David Townsend said the Democrats might be better off hoping that voters regret their fling with a glitzy governor.
“Voters might not want Mr. Excitement,” Townsend said. “They got Mr. Excitement with Schwarzenegger, and they’re still waiting for him to generate some good public policy.”
Townsend also noted that Los Angeles mayors have trouble getting to the governor’s office. Only one has ever been elected, and that was in 1917.
Republicans like Assemblyman Ray Haynes of Riverside are confident that Californians will get behind Schwarzenegger’s reforms in November, making him a shoo-in for reelection no matter which Democrat runs.
Villaraigosa, he said, would be a bigger threat than Angelides or Westly. But Haynes said the mayor was doing the right thing by staying out of the melee for now.
“If I were Antonio, my powder would be very dry at this moment, waiting to see what happens in November,” Haynes said. “Let’s say everything goes down in flames for the governor. Then Antonio steps up and says ... ‘I just don’t have confidence in the candidates. And I know I said I wouldn’t do it, but now it has to be done.’ ”
Monday’s reception for Villaraigosa showed the extent of his stature among high-ranking Democrats and his celebrated ability to work a room. When not catching up with old colleagues like Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, he was busy charming strangers such as Irma Tapia.
Tapia, 16, was one of a group of young, uniformed Forest Service volunteers who came to Sacramento to visit the Capitol building. She ended up meeting a politician who had been on the cover of Newsweek.
Afterward, Tapia seemed star-struck -- as if she had just met some dreamy combination of JFK and Heath Ledger.
“He didn’t make himself to be like he was better than us or anything,” she said.
Across the room, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) struck a more sober tone. He insisted that the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates were strong enough to knock off the governor.
“You don’t have to be the most dynamic person to appeal to the voters,” said Alarcon, who ran against Villaraigosa in the mayoral primary.
Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said Villaraigosa could help California’s Democratic Party without leaving his current job.
“He could be a good mayor, a solid mayor,” Ridley-Thomas said.
“That never hurts, and he’s sufficiently political to know how to leverage that.”