Villaraigosa denies Denver snub; says he’s working hard for Obama

Barack Obama has accepted his party's nomination at Denver's Invesco Field football stadium. Top of the Ticket bloggers were there.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Far from center stage, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent the first day of the Democratic National Convention straining to speak over clattering dishes as he addressed a breakfast meeting Monday of the Florida delegation.

On the second day, Villaraigosa remained on the sidelines, as early Barack Obama supporters like Federico Peña, the former mayor of Denver, and Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles took the stage.

With no prime-time speaking slot or other major role at the four-day convention, one of the nation’s best-known Latino elected officials has been relegated mostly to side events. He has filled the void by feverishly working crowds and the news media and appearing on cable’s MSNBC and Fox News. He spoke to delegates from New Hampshire on Sunday, Florida on Monday and Minnesota and Texas on Tuesday.

All the while, Villaraigosa has been careful to brush aside any speculation that he was snubbed by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama as retribution for his aggressive campaigning for rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries.

“I’ve been asked that question 100 times,” said Villaraigosa, who spoke at the Democratic convention in 2004 when he was a city councilman. “I’m going to Pueblo, Colo., this week to campaign for Barack Obama, and I’m going to campaign as hard for his candidacy” as he did for Clinton.

“It matters to Angelenos who is in the White House. If I have a voice to add to this debate, I intend to use it.”

Still, some of Villaraigosa’s close political allies said that, as mayor of the nation’s second-largest city, he had felt slighted. Hoping to correct that perception, one of Obama’s top advisors, Valerie Jarrett, is scheduled to met privately with Villaraigosa on Thursday.

“The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the significant role that Villaraigosa will play in the campaign as it moves from now forward,” said Kerman Maddox, who is close to the mayor and serves as a member of the Obama national finance committee. “The Obama campaign wants to make sure that he plays a crucial role in the campaign. They want to reassure the mayor that the Obama campaign appreciates everything he is doing.”

Villaraigosa was one of Clinton’s most tireless and effective advocates on the primary campaign trail, a strong voice in states where Latino voters were critical. Clinton credited Villaraigosa with helping deliver a popular victory in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses in January, after which questions grew about Obama’s ability to win over Latinos. Another public thank-you came when Clinton spoke Tuesday night -- the mayor sat just behind Bill Clinton in the convention hall.

Villaraigosa made a swift pivot to Obama when the primary season ended, citing the Illinois senator’s inspiring message and the perils of another Republican administration in the White House. In July, the Obama campaign asked Villaraigosa to introduce him at a convention of Latino civil rights leaders, and met with him and three other Latino supporters of Clinton at the National Conference of Mayors in Miami.

But vestiges of Villaraigosa’s loyalty to Clinton linger, even when he tried to put a positive spin on the outcome of the divisive primary in his address to the Florida delegation Monday.

“As someone who campaigned hard for her,” Villaraigosa said, “I said this is the most talented field of presidential candidates in my memory. I can’t remember a time when so many talented Democrats were in one campaign at one time. And first and foremost among them were Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Los Angeles-based political consultant Kam Kuwata, who has taken a lead role in planning the Denver convention, said the Obama campaign never intended to keep Villaraigosa off the main stage.

“I’m personally not aware that he made a request to speak,” said Kuwata, who has worked as a political consultant for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn, who lost a reelection bid to Villaraigosa in 2005. “My understanding is that he has been one of the tremendous surrogates for Sen. Obama.”

Compared with past conventions, there also is significantly less time for speakers, primarily because the festivities will move to Denver’s NFL stadium for Obama’s speech Thursday, he said. The Illinois senator also wanted to have a number of “average, everyday folks” speak at the convention, Kuwata said.

City Council President Eric Garcetti, an early Obama backer, said that the mayor was not being punished but had simply joined a train that had already left the station. “We have to get as many people on the train as possible,” he said. “But the train has to keep moving.”

Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said the Obama campaign also had to make some practical decisions about the convention lineup.

The Latino politicians scheduled to speak at the convention include Peña, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, all of whom come from swing states that Obama needs to win in November, Regalado said. California, on the other hand, is expected to back Obama by a wide margin, he said.

“If you’re trying to cover your bases pragmatically, and already have three or four Latinos on the program, what is Antonio going to do?” Regalado said. “I’m not sure there was a strong feeling that Antonio could be much of a help at this convention.”

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez of Los Angeles, who also worked for Clinton, said that both he and Villaraigosa had told the Obama campaign they would help in any way possible and that “they still have some work to do” to win over Latino voters.

“It’s expected, in this type of situation, that if you were not there from the very beginning, it’s not expected that you’ll be part of the shindig at the convention,” said Nuñez, a Villaraigosa friend. But, he said, the mayor deserved better, if only for Obama’s own self-interest: “He’s the mayor of the largest Democratic city in the nation.”