Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s decision Monday to skip the 2010 race for California governor left a two-person contest for the Democratic nomination in which former Gov. Jerry Brown starts with a strong advantage in scooping up much of the mayor’s support, political analysts said.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the other contender, appeared likely to tap into Villaraigosa’s strong appeal among young voters. But Brown, who has not formally declared, is better known in vote-rich Southern California and is likely to benefit from support among Latinos, African Americans and older voters.
In Los Angeles, which packs a powerful wallop in statewide elections, Brown just slightly trailed Villaraigosa among Democratic voters sizing up potential gubernatorial candidates in a Los Angeles Times Poll released Sunday.
Appearing on CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer on Monday afternoon, Villaraigosa announced that he would forgo a bid for governor after months of flirting with a possible run. The mayor, who begins his second, four-year term July 1, said that the decision was “agonizing” but that he felt duty-bound to stay at City Hall to tackle L.A.'s dire fiscal crisis and to see through the policy agenda he launched in 2005.
Blitzer cited the Times Poll, in which the mayor received a favorable job approval rating from 55% of those surveyed, statistically equivalent to the vote he won in the city’s March election against a field of little-known and underfunded candidates. A plurality of poll respondents also said they did not want Villaraigosa to seek the governorship.
Villaraigosa shrugged off questions about the poll, as well as the recent cover of Los Angeles magazine, which branded him a “failure.”
“That’s what happens when you’re mayor, you’re the focus of the good times and the bad,” Villaraigosa said, smiling. “In a time when the unemployment rate is at 12.5%, a 55% approval isn’t so bad. But I recognize that I’ve got a lot of work to do . . . and I’ve got to do a better job, even, than the job that we’ve done over the last four years.”
Villaraigosa said he had considered a gubernatorial run because Sacramento politics have become “an abomination” and that, as a former state Assembly speaker who won two mayoral races in a city known for its factious political divides, he believed that he had the ability to put the state back on track.
“I served as a speaker, I was known as a bipartisan leader, I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what’s broken in Sacramento, but I just couldn’t get beyond the fact that I love this job and I love this city that I was born and raised in,” Villaraigosa, 56, told reporters after his television appearance.
Villaraigosa added that his decision also was influenced by the effect that an unrelenting statewide campaign could have on his teenage daughter.
“I couldn’t see myself up and down the state at a time when I have a 16-year-old daughter who is just my pride and joy,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be campaigning in Northern California while she’s getting ready for her prom and taking her finals and filling out applications for college.”
Villaraigosa added that his biggest failing and disappointment during his first term was personal: the breakup of his marriage, which occurred after he acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a television newswoman.
“Having said that, I also feel strongly that I have a lot of work to do. I set an ambitious agenda . . . I believe we’ve accomplished much, but I also acknowledge that these challenges are big and that we’ve got a lot of work to do to finish the work we’ve started,” he said.
Villaraigosa took heat for breaking a promise to serve a complete four-year term when he ran for City Council in 2003, only to announce his campaign for mayor two years later. During his recent reelection campaign, when speculation bubbled about a possible run for governor in 2010, Villaraigosa was careful not to make a similar vow.
On Monday, Villaraigosa said he couldn’t “leave this city in the middle of a crisis,” citing the city’s ongoing attempt to close a $530-million budget deficit, a 12.5% unemployment rate and a flood of home foreclosures.
He added that he was committed to continuing the aggressive agenda he launched in 2005 to expand the Police Department, turn L.A. into America’s greenest big city and start to build a “subway to the sea” that would connect downtown to Westwood.
In the Times Poll, which was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies, voters citywide gave Villaraigosa a lukewarm approval rating. Villaraigosa received a favorable job approval rating from 55% of those surveyed, equivalent to the vote he won in the March election against his little-known rivals, but those surveyed said L.A. needed a new direction.
“He certainly made a prudent choice,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow. “The city is facing a lot of problems. . . . Most residents of the city want a mayor who is going to be getting up every morning, and going to City Hall and focusing on the problems facing the city. I think he’s taken a deep breath, he’s stepped back. If he turns out to be one of our great mayors, then I’m sure there will be plenty of good opportunities.”
Villaraigosa’s second term ends in 2012, which could put him in prime position to run for the U.S. Senate if Democrat Dianne Feinstein, 76, decides to retire when her third term ends that year, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican political strategist who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Villaraigosa’s absence from the governor’s race should benefit both Brown and Newsom, but Brown more, Schnur said. Among Democratic voters in Los Angeles who took part in the Times Poll, Brown was the most popular candidate among older voters and whites and, after Villaraigosa, the second most popular among Latinos and African Americans.
“Both Brown and Newsom can make a demographic claim to Villaraigosa’s support -- Brown with Latino voters and Newsom with younger voters. But it looks like Brown is in a better position to benefit organizationally. Unions and Latinos are much better organized politically” than 18-to-25-year-olds are, Schnur said.
Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento, agreed that Newsom probably would be the more appealing candidate among younger voters who favor Villaraigosa, but said it was unclear who would benefit the most from Villaraigosa’s departure.
O’Connor said Villaraigosa’s “normal constituency will be split,” because some of Villaraigosa’s supporters in labor could be drawn to Brown’s civil rights record.
The latest statewide Field Poll in March found that without Feinstein in the 2010 governor’s race, Brown was the top Democratic contender with 26%, followed by Villaraigosa with 22% and Newsom with 16%.
A number of political analysts believe that Villaraigosa’s decision not to run for governor could motivate others to jump into the race -- including U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) -- especially because the major contenders among both Democrats and Republicans are limited to white candidates from Northern California.
Accolades for Villaraigosa from the other candidates and their supporters started drifting in shortly after CNN aired his announcement.
Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination along with former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman and Tom Campbell of Orange County, said Villaraigosa is “someone I know, I respect and I like” despite their political differences.
In a statement, Newsom said: “I look forward to continuing to work with him, sharing our experiences as mayors, and collaborating on innovative solutions that will take California in a new direction.”
Winning the California governor’s race has proven to be an elusive quest for any big-city mayor in recent history.
Several Los Angeles mayors including Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan and Sam Yorty all tried and lost, as did San Francisco’s Joseph Alioto.