The candidates come a-courting

Times Staff Writer

It began as most serious political courtships do, over dinner at a fashionable restaurant in D.C.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s staff made the call. Would Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa be willing to dine with her to discuss her presidential campaign?

Clearly, she was after his endorsement for her presidential bid: He is, after all, one of the country’s top Latino leaders and an influential Democrat in the bluest of big blue states. But there’s something else about Villaraigosa: He’s one of the few Los Angeles politicians who has been able to capture, and hold, Hollywood’s attention.


The entertainment industry’s serious politicos rarely bother to hobnob with local officials. It’s too small-scale for them. But that was before they met Villaraigosa, who has become a celebrity in a town that glitters with them. He brings a star’s wattage to any conversation -- whether it’s with a studio executive or a presidential candidate. And much to everyone’s surprise, Clinton has had an unexpectedly rough time with the entertainment industry, where moguls such as David Geffen have criticized and questioned her candidacy. It makes forging an alliance with Villaraigosa doubly important.

Intrigued, the mayor agreed to meet the senator for dinner at a D.C. Italian restaurant on a cool evening in January. They talked. They laughed. They hugged goodbye. Clinton was “warm” and “engaging,” Villaraigosa said. (She all but offered him a place on the ticket, his pals joked.)

Nearly two months later, Clinton is still trying to get Villaraigosa’s endorsement -- she even came to town to do a public event with him recently, showering him with praise. The senator will have to wait a while longer. Every Democrat with presidential aspirations is vying for Villaraigosa’s support. He’s met with some of them, he’s taken all their calls.

He likes John Edwards. (“He’s a good man,” Villaraigosa said.) He’s trying to work Sen. Barack Obama into his schedule. (“I’ve talked to him on the phone and I saw him in Washington briefly,” the mayor said. “We haven’t had an opportunity to really sit down and talk.”)

Eventually, Villaraigosa says, he hopes to have face time with all the Democratic contenders. He is taking it all very seriously, like a private Iowa caucus at the Getty House.

“It’s the Villaraigosa Primary,” said Chad Griffin, a Hollywood political consultant and former Clinton White House staffer. “There are a lot of people interested in who the mayor is going to support.”

In an interview this week, Villaraigosa said he’s approaching the process as any voter would.

“I want to know what kind of person they are,” Villaraigosa said. “I want to get a sense of their values, their vision, their character and convictions.”

City Hall insiders speculate that the mayor will eventually back Clinton. For the most part, they move in the same political circles. Former President Bill Clinton is a close friend of one of Villaraigosa’s strongest political allies, billionaire Ron Burkle, who is hosting a huge fundraiser at his house for Hillary Clinton next week. (After Villaraigosa lost his first mayoral race to James K. Hahn in 2001, Burkle gave him a consulting job to help soften the blow.)

Villaraigosa also has ties to Clinton loyalists Steve Bing and Casey Wasserman, both mega-rich and well connected in the entertainment industry. And one of Villaraigosa’s top advisors and fundraisers, Ari Swiller, is a former Washingtonian and a committed Clinton supporter. He’s also the guy responsible for bringing in much of Villaraigosa’s Hollywood money during his last mayoral election.

Plus, Villaraigosa understands the Clinton brand of politics: It’s not enough to be charming and charismatic; there are subtleties, like remembering ancient slights and old betrayals.

“Antonio is the furthest down the line with Hillary,” said one longtime political associate. “That doesn’t mean he hasn’t talked to others. And if her campaign were to suddenly slip on a banana peel, he would bolt. But for now, it’s probably Hillary.”

Villaraigosa, for his part, said he’s keeping an open mind. “It’s to his advantage to see how much he can garner in return for his endorsement,” the associate said.

Some politicos wonder if perhaps Villaraigosa should just stay out of the presidential fray. “What if he picks wrong?” asked political strategist Andy Spahn, a consultant to Steven Spielberg and a host of other celebs. “What’s that going to do for his future gubernatorial race or Senate race or mayoral race?”

Griffin said he doesn’t think it matters: “Whoever gets the nomination eventually will come clamoring for his endorsement.”

For now, Villaraigosa relishes this position: There’s nothing he likes better than playing political power broker. Asking him to stay out of the presidential election would be akin to telling Jack Nicholson to stay home on Oscar night.