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Villaraigosa Will Finally Get His National Presence

Times Staff Writer

Antonio Villaraigosa’s election as mayor of Los Angeles vaults him into the nation’s top ranks of Latino leaders, crowning him as a potent force in the Democratic Party and giving him a strong platform to reach for higher office, analysts say.

For months, Villaraigosa has taken pains to minimize the historical importance of his candidacy. But on Tuesday, Los Angeles became the most populous city in America to elect a Latino mayor, its first in 133 years. That distinction magnifies the political power that Villaraigosa acquired by ousting incumbent James K. Hahn.

“Both symbolically and tangibly, he almost becomes an effective prime minister for Latinos of the Southwest,” said David Diaz, a professor of Chicano and urban studies at Cal State Northridge.

Villaraigosa, a city councilman and former state Assembly speaker, has labored for years to establish a presence in national politics. A Democratic National Committee member, he was co-chairman of Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign and the committee that wrote the party’s 2004 platform.

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But none of those posts gave Villaraigosa the high visibility he will attain as mayor of Los Angeles.

In an instant, his victory Tuesday bestowed on him the prominence of the party’s highest-ranking Latinos, among them New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado. By virtue of the city’s size, Villaraigosa also leaps ahead of the Latino mayors of San Antonio, San Jose, Miami and Albuquerque.

“Under any circumstances, the mayor of Los Angeles has the potential to be a major player in state and national politics,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant. “But Villaraigosa’s biography and ethnicity give him even greater potential. All he has to do now is perform.”

Doing so, however, may not be easy. Villaraigosa will be operating at a time of federal, state and city budget constraints. The presidency, Congress and the governor’s office are held by Republicans.

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In the campaign, Villaraigosa set a high bar for himself by promising a costly subway expansion -- without saying how he would pay for it -- and by naming the city’s cash-starved public schools, not under the mayor’s control, as top priorities for his four-year term.

Some are skeptical. Bill Carrick, a Hahn campaign strategist, dismissed Villaraigosa this week as a “political cheerleader who enjoys running around the country campaigning all the time” but who has no foundation in public policy.

Nonetheless, Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino think tank, described Villaraigosa’s political network as a key asset for the mayor-elect. “I think he will be positively disposed to leveraging this national star power -- and national niche for him in Latino circles -- in a way that brings more resources and attention to the city of L.A.,” he said.

To raise money in the mayoral race, Villaraigosa traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and San Francisco, drawing a torrent of contributions with the help of Democratic and Latino allies.

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“He’s not a stranger to the insiders of Democratic politics on the national level,” said Tonio Burgos, a New York lobbyist who hosted a fundraiser for Villaraigosa in Manhattan.

Politically, Villaraigosa’s victory carries symbolic importance at a time when Republicans are trying to make inroads among Latinos, while Democrats are trying to firm their traditional hold on them, strategists said.

In the same way that the first black mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York -- Tom Bradley, Harold Washington and David Dinkins, respectively -- symbolized the rising political fortunes of blacks, Villaraigosa’s election “will become an instant symbolic victory for Latinos nationwide,” said Luis Miranda, a New York pollster.

Closer to home, Villaraigosa’s election rockets him to the top of the Latino political hierarchy in California at a time when Latinos are a fast-rising share of the population and -- to a lesser extent -- the electorate. Among those now eclipsed by the mayor-elect are Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, City Council President Alex Padilla and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. None of them can expect the attention that Villaraigosa will garner as mayor in the state’s largest media market.

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In an era of term limits, Villaraigosa, 52, soon could be looking ahead to a higher public office. Villaraigosa has vowed to serve his full four-year term as mayor; by law, he could serve two terms. But he broke a similar promise made two years ago, during his council campaign, to not run for mayor.

For now, aides say nothing is in the works.

“There’s nothing in the world he’d rather be than mayor of Los Angeles,” said Parke Skelton, a senior campaign advisor to Villaraigosa. As mayor, Skelton said, “you can establish a nonpartisan, practical problem-solver image for yourself.”

“The best way to do something else is to do a good job with what you’ve got,” he said.

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Schnur, a onetime aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, said that if Villaraigosa is a successful mayor, “he’ll be the automatic front-runner for any statewide office he desires.”

But history shows that winning is hardly automatic.

Two recent predecessors, Bradley and Richard Riordan, made a combined three bids for governor, all unsuccessful. To some extent, each run was complicated by stances taken during their years as mayor.

Villaraigosa’s political profile -- he is a liberal -- is already far more in sync with the city’s electorate than with the state’s. Liberals make up roughly half the voters in Los Angeles but barely a third statewide. During his years as mayor, the gravitational force of the city’s Democratic power bases -- organized labor, employee unions and community activists -- probably will try to wrench him further to the left.

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But like his mayoral quest, a state race would be a bid to make history, this time as California’s first Latino governor since the 19th century.


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