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Mayoral Titans May Someday Clash

Times Staff Writer

If opposites attract, what of two men as similar as Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa: bold, charismatic and young enough to aspire beyond the cities they run and reflect?

The result could be a novel contest pitting the state’s two marquee mayors in a fight for governor. Never mind that San Francisco’s Newsom and Los Angeles’ Villaraigosa both disavow any thoughts of future office, insisting they are utterly consumed with their jobs at hand.

Villaraigosa: “I’m focused on it and nothing else right now.”

Newsom: “I don’t think about that for two seconds.”

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Forget the fact that there is already a gubernatorial contest well underway involving neither of the two men. While Republican incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger would be term-limited if he wins in November, a victory by Democrat Phil Angelides would presumably put him in a fight for reelection in 2010, probably forestalling a Newsom-Villaraigosa matchup until at least 2014.

No matter.

A birds-fly, fish-swim sense of inevitability surrounds the two Democratic mayors and their political futures, placing them, if not exactly on a collision course, then on a path that has produced a certain tension among several of their more eager and aggressive advisors. “It’s very much on everyone’s radar screen,” said one political strategist who occasionally counsels Villaraigosa.

Each side accuses the other of being obsessed and stirring trouble just to draw attention. The Newsom camp suggests that Villaraigosa is trying to lure the city’s beloved 49ers football team to Los Angeles. (Untrue, the word from Los Angeles.) Allies of Villaraigosa grumble that Newsom crossed his southern counterpart by allowing education aides to weigh in against Villaraigosa’s school takeover proposal. (Not so, the response from San Francisco.)

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The result has been more than one staff-level telephone call to unruffle feathers, along with rampant speculation about a race that could highlight a north-south cleavage -- cultural, political, demographic -- like no other in California’s history. “Two different cities,” said state historian Kevin Starr. “Two different kinds of people.”

But first there are the many similarities between the two mayors that help fuel the competition, real or imagined.

As they move about town -- for them, sitting at City Hall is like being snared in a trap -- both men exude a confidence just this side of swagger, slapping hands and acknowledging well-wishers hollering from rolled-down car windows. “Hey, mayor! Over here!”

There is a crackling energy and a presence -- the gleaming teeth, the perfect hair, the stylish tailoring -- that makes even the compact Villaraigosa seem larger than he is. (At 6 foot 3, Newsom clearly has his Los Angeles counterpart topped in at least one area.)

Neither has shied from tackling big issues confronting their famously fractious cities. Newsom has worked to establish the first universal healthcare system of any municipality in the country. Villaraigosa pushed through a substantial fee hike to pay for more police and, after scaling back his ambitions somewhat, is edging closer to winning some control over the city’s troubled public schools.

Both have dealt with the fallout of race-tinged scandals affecting their police departments.

And both enjoy unusually high national profiles as leaders of a political vanguard: Newsom, the push for legalizing same-sex marriage; Villaraigosa, the empowerment of the nation’s growing Latino population.

So naturally there is talk of rivalry and a sense of the two men circling each other, even if both vehemently deny any such thing.

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Villaraigosa: “I have a great relationship with Gavin. I think he’s one of America’s finest mayors.”

Newsom: “My sense is he’s extraordinarily popular and he’s done a very good job.”

There are differences, of course, which make comparisons all the more compelling.

Villaraigosa, 53, is the former street tough, still with an edge beneath his pressed white shirt, peach tie and navy blue suit. He is coiled, even when draped across an armchair in his grand City Hall office.

Newsom, 38, is the son of a judge, with the chest-out stride and breezy air of the comfortably well-off. He is supple, whether dealing with a gaggle of Sacramento reporters or the hard cases in San Francisco’s tough Bayview neighborhood.

“That’s my fault,” he says when an angry unemployed man confronts him on the sidewalk over a city program that helps parolees find jobs.

That is something else about Newsom: Of the two, he is the less guarded, quicker to find fault with himself, far more irreverent. He jokes about his appearance, about personal integrity. As he signs autographs for sixth-graders during a weekly walk through their school, he tells them his signature “will be worth a lot if I’m indicted or arrested.”

Perhaps it is the arc of their public lives. For Villaraigosa, a labor organizer and community activist, politics was a way up; for Newsom, a prosperous businessman, a move over.

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“If you knew where I grew up,” Villaraigosa said on a recent sweltering afternoon, “you knew the adversity I’ve overcome in my life to be able to sit in this job, in this office.... It’s a dream come true.”

Newsom can be equally rhapsodic about his job and his city. “This is my bliss, my purpose, my inspiration,” he said in the back of a black Lincoln Town Car, preparing to step out for a ribbon-cutting at a local sports bar.

But he also displays more cynicism toward politicians and the political system -- Newsom uses such words as “knee-jerk” and “dumbed down” to describe much of what passes for public discourse -- and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude one never senses from Villaraigosa. “I’ve got a life outside politics,” Newsom said. “Thank God my mother gave me enough hugs when I was a kid. I don’t need to be mayor.”

In that way, the two seem to mirror their cities: Villaraigosa, the striver who scrapped his way out of Los Angeles’ rough Eastside; Newsom, the fourth-generation San Franciscan who made it before he ever set foot inside his hometown’s splendid beaux-arts City Hall.

“San Francisco is for those who’ve arrived,” said Starr, who teaches at USC and divides his time between north and south. “Los Angeles is a place for second, third and fourth chances.”

Both men will face reelection before they can seriously consider a run for higher office.

Newsom is up first, in 2007. Nothing is ever certain in San Francisco, a city that eats its politicians alive. But his skillful appeasement of the city’s left and (relatively speaking) right -- along with an eye-popping 86% approval rating in a November San Francisco State University poll -- suggests his run for a second term could be a waltz.

Villaraigosa was elected last year and won’t face the voters again until 2009, assuming he seeks a second term. After a widely heralded start, he is entering what is often the most treacherous time for an incumbent, making it impossible to rate his chances for reelection three years hence. (Just ask Schwarzenegger, among others, about the sophomore jinx.)

For all the two have accomplished -- and all the political chatter they’ve inspired -- each still has something to prove.

“Both of them have raised expectations so much” -- Villaraigosa with his promise to fix the schools, Newsom with his pledge to make San Francisco a hub of stem cell research and world capital of green technology -- “they’ve got to actually have the record following through on that,” said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Francisco.

Otherwise, he said, they will just be “prima donnas, divas,” with their promise and their best years behind them.


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