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Could Antonio Villaraigosa come back to the Los Angeles mayor’s office?

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pictured in January receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Biden administration has yet to announce whether it will name Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as U.S. ambassador to India. But the jockeying to fill his seat is already underway.

One of the prospects who has generated buzz at City Hall is former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who held the job from 2005 to 2013 before reaching term limits. But a question has hung over that idea: Would he be allowed to return under city rules?

One political candidate argues that he would — even if the City Charter limits mayors to two terms — and she wants City Atty. Mike Feuer to weigh in on the idea.

Marina A. Torres, a federal prosecutor running for city attorney, argued that Villaraigosa is nonetheless eligible based on her reading of the charter.

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In her letter to Feuer, Torres also provided a copy of a legal memo from Nossaman LLP stating that someone who had served two terms as mayor could still legally be appointed to serve the rest of Garcetti’s term.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti isn’t directly addressing the India ambassador reports, but when asked about what would qualify him for the post, he said being an elected official involves “daily diplomacy.”

Although mayors are limited to two terms, the charter excludes from that limit “any unexpired term to which a person is elected or appointed if the remainder of the term is less than one-half of the full term of office,” attorney Amber Maltbie wrote.

The Times has reported that Garcetti is likely to be nominated as U.S. ambassador to India by President Biden, according to a person familiar with the vetting process. But it’s unclear when the pick will be officially announced.

Torres’ request, sent Friday, is a sign of the behind-the-scenes chatter over the interim post.

Villaraigosa could be an appealing pick for council members who are leery of choosing an interim mayor who could use the role as a springboard for the permanent job. For example, if council President Nury Martinez were named as interim mayor, she could follow with her own mayoral campaign.

Martinez has said she is seriously considering a mayoral bid. Feuer and Councilman Joe Buscaino have already entered the 2022 mayoral race, and at least three other council members are considering whether to run.

Torres, who is running to succeed Feuer, is working with the same political consulting firm as Buscaino. She said the idea that Buscaino or any other candidate could benefit from Villaraigosa taking the job is “beside the point.”

Torres said she wrote the letter because she had been asked about whether she believed Villaraigosa was eligible. The former mayor, she said, is “one of the very few political leaders with the experience necessary to lead Los Angeles during this critical period.”

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“I thought, ‘It is time for the current city attorney to weigh in and issue a legal opinion,’” she said. “This is at the front of people’s minds right now.”

Villaraigosa, reached Friday, said the possibility of him being chosen is speculation, adding that he believes in public service.

“I’m born and raised here. I love this town. And if called upon, I’d be honored,” he said.

During his time as mayor, Villaraigosa expanded the size of the LAPD, tackled the budget crisis brought on by the 2008 recession and tangled with the teachers union over control of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Torres also praised him for expanding mass transit.

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The former L.A. mayor has criticized the recall effort targeting his 2018 gubernatorial foe, Gavin Newsom. But he hasn’t publicly ruled out a run.

He currently serves as co-chair of Mercury Public Affairs, a public strategy and lobbying firm with clients who have business before City Hall.

Feuer spokesman Rob Wilcox said it would be “premature” to weigh in on whether Villaraigosa is eligible to become interim mayor. “We will give appropriate advice when the time comes,” he said.

Another name in the mix is Councilman Paul Krekorian, who has been at City Hall since 2009. Asked this week if he is angling for the interim mayor post, he too declined to speculate.

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“Who knows what the future may hold for any of us?” he said. “But I’m prepared to serve the city in any way that I can best be of assistance.”

If Garcetti leaves before the end of his term, the City Council has the power to formally appoint an interim mayor or call a special election to choose a replacement to serve out his term. Until an interim mayor is appointed or elected, Martinez would serve as acting mayor.

Buscaino spokesman Branimir Kvartuc said neither his office nor the campaign sought legal advice on Villaraigosa. A representative for Martinez declined to weigh in on the prospects of a Villaraigosa appointment.

“Whatever maneuvering someone might be doing, there’s no vacancy,” said Roy Behr, Martinez’s political strategist. “And so there’s nothing really for us to comment on.”


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