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Why Antonio will run for governor

Now that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has won reelection, he will immediately take steps, at least behind the scenes, to run for governor of California. Those who hope otherwise have little understanding of the man or California politics.

There is a path to victory in the Democratic primary for Villaraigosa if he runs against three white male candidates: former Gov. Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi. Villaraigosa will be able to claim the Latino vote -- roughly 28% of primary voters -- thus needing only an additional 12% to reach the 40% probably needed to succeed in a divided field. In a two-way race against Brown, on the other hand, Brown wins.

Villaraigosa, a former state Assembly speaker, has a plausible rationale. State government is more dysfunctional than ever, a mess directly attributable to Proposition 13. Then Gov.-Brown declared himself a “born-again tax cutter” and supported Proposition 13 when it passed in 1978. As a result of Proposition 13, property taxes are practically frozen not only for homeowners but for giant corporations and agribusinesses. And although it takes a legislative majority to grant a tax break, the measure requires an impossible two-thirds vote to repeal one. Consequently, state and local budgets are locked in a downward spiral, regardless of whatever stimulus funds come from Washington.

These and other dysfunctions of the state can be addressed only by calling a California constitutional convention, or so Villaraigosa might plausibly argue. He can point to many past accomplishments in his brief tenure as speaker, including historic school and environmental bonds.

This is not an endorsement, but a prediction. If Villaraigosa finally decides not to run for governor, it won’t be because he doesn’t want to. It would be because polling shows it is impossible, a career-breaker. But in a field of four, his chances look good.

Some say he first should do the job he was elected to do. They don’t understand his DNA or that of most power politicians. Villaraigosa is not a policy wonk; instead, he looks for good ideas that he can market as sound bites, such as “greening L.A.” or “subway to the sea.” Like any Machiavellian, his mission is to expand power for himself and for the forces he has chosen to represent -- Latinos and labor foremost -- while also cultivating an image as pro-growth, pro-business and pro-police. He still needs to win a greater base among environmentalists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but the demographics of California politics are trending his way.

What if those who want Villaraigosa to stay home get their way? The city would have a restless, frustrated, distracted mayor who wanted to be the nation’s preeminent Latino official, wanted to be considered for Hillary Clinton’s Cabinet and wanted to be governor, but was forced to settle for managing a chaotic city while others moved up the power ladder ahead of him.

The guy’s a horse. Let him run if he can.

Tom Hayden is a former state senator.


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