Villaraigosa scrambles to make it past Tuesday’s primary in race for California governor

Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pictured before a radio interview Thursday, trails GOP businessman John Cox in their campaigns for California governor, a UC Berkeley poll shows.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Antonio Villaraigosa, whose meteoric rise in California politics was viewed as the embodiment of burgeoning Latino political power, is now having to defend his own turf in the city he once led in hopes of advancing in next week’s gubernatorial primary.

Multiple polls, including one released Thursday by UC Berkeley, show GOP businessman John Cox edging out the former Los Angeles mayor for second place in the June 5 primary. In California’s primary system, the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party.

Villaraigosa and his allies are working feverishly to make sure that does not happen.

Wealthy charter-school backers launched a $2.3-million ad blitz this week attacking Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic front-runner, as an absentee and entitled elected official.


Meanwhile, Villaraigosa began a round-the-clock barnstorm of greater Los Angeles on Thursday morning to encourage turnout from the supporters he needs: Latinos, working-class voters and his former constituents.

Villaraigosa said the polls don’t reflect the views of those voters. Many are so busy working and taking care of their families that they do not have time to participate in opinion surveys, he said.

“What I understand very clearly from the last 25 years or so of elections is that the south votes later, they don’t vote absentee, and they vote in great numbers on election day,” Villaraigosa told reporters before visiting the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles. “I’m not paying attention to those [polls] right now. We’re focused on getting out the vote. If our vote comes out, we’re going to do very well.”

Villaraigosa planned to headline more than a dozen events at iconic Los Angeles locations during a 24-hour campaign sprint. They included a lunchtime stroll through downtown’s Grand Central Market; a midnight visit to the Abbey, the historic gay bar in West Hollywood; and a 2 a.m. stop at Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District.

During the lunch rush at Philippe’s in Chinatown, Villaraigosa jumped behind the counter and served up the restaurant’s famous French dip sandwiches to lined-up customers.


“I much prefer Villaraigosa over Newsom,” said Shane Smith, a stockbroker from Redlands who was grabbing a bite before heading to the Dodger game. “I think L.A. is a little more like California than San Francisco.”

Smith, a Republican, said he’s already voted by mail for Cox, even though he doesn’t think he has any chance of being California’s next governor. If Villaraigosa survives the primary for a face-off with Newsom, Smith said he’ll have his vote.

That is a big if, and the round-the-clock tour — recalling those he did in his 2001, 2005 and 2009 mayoral races — shows how crucial Los Angeles metropolitan area voters are to Villaraigosa’s chances.

“He needs to over-perform with his base, and that would be Los Angeles voters and Latinos. He’s doing all the right things at the moment [with the bus tour],” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who plans to vote for Villaraigosa. But “his path from here is difficult. He is clearly behind [though] it is possible to see movement over the next five days.”

In a recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll, Villaraigosa’s strongest base of support was among likely Latino voters, though not by a wide margin over Newsom. Most notably, Newsom and Villaraigosa appear to be neck-and-neck in Los Angeles County, although the poll’s margin of sampling error for the region is plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Newsom is putting in significant time in the area as well — if he can maintain such support in the region, he will almost certainly face Cox in the general election.


On Thursday, he visited a barbershop in South Los Angeles with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The previous day, he held a rally with Sen. Kamala Harris in a packed labor hall in Burbank. He plans multiple visits to the region between now and election day.

A common refrain among Newsom’s supporters at the events was dissatisfaction with how Villaraigosa ran the city.

“I’m not a fan. He’s kinda shady, a ham for the cameras,” said Marcy Flores, 42, of Hollywood. She said she appreciated Newsom’s “progressiveness, his charm. He’s just exactly what I’m looking for in a politician. I agree with him on everything, and if I disagree with him, he changes my mind.”

Wealthy charter-school backers who have spent millions of dollars boosting Villaraigosa’s bid changed tack by going on the offensive against Newsom for the first time this week, buying at least $2.3 million of airtime to attack the lieutenant governor in new ads.

The pro-Villaraigosa group had previously spent the bulk of its money on ads boosting the former Los Angeles mayor’s background and resume. It also spent smaller amounts trying to ding Cox and help Republican Travis Allen in an effort to split the GOP vote and ensure that Villaraigosa comes in second in Tuesday’s primary.

“We all know guys like Gavin,” a narrator says in a 30-second ad that launched Wednesday. “Boasting, overselling his achievements, making false claims.”


That ad and another released Monday quote Newsom’s past comments about his boredom with his lack of official duties as lieutenant governor. Both conclude, “Gavin’s not going to work as governor.”

A spokesman for the group said it was driven to attack Newsom because of his campaign and allies’ advertising efforts supporting Cox as a means to ensure a Republican makes the top two, and their criticism of Villaraigosa and Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang.

“After Newsom has spent millions attacking Democrats and boosting Cox, we had no other choice,” said Josh Pulliam, spokesman for the charter schools group, Families & Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018.

Newsom scoffed at the ads, calling the claims “nonsense.” He added that the attacks were an indication that the group recognized that Villaraigosa was in trouble.

“When you’re behind, you tend to get aggressive,” he told reporters after speaking at a senior center in San Diego on Thursday. “It’s unfortunate…. When tens of millions of dollars come in just from a handful of people, I’m not sure that’s good for democracy.”

Labor has spent millions boosting Newsom’s candidacy, but the candidate argued that the situation was different because the money comes from the dues of hundreds of thousands of union members.


Newsom has been on his own weeklong bus tour, where he cautioned his supporters against getting complacent because of his position in the polls. He also warned that if he and Villaraigosa end up competing in the general election, it would be a bruising, divisive, expensive intraparty battle that will dampen enthusiasm among Democrats.

“We always win when our base shows up,” Newsom told reporters aboard his campaign bus. “The reason we don’t show up is often because of the negativity, and the divisiveness and the internecine warfare.”

He was responding to criticism that his campaign’s strategic effort to boost Cox could end up hurting Democrats’ ability to gain control of Congress in November.

Cox, who has contributed $4.9 million to his campaign and has been endorsed by President Trump, appeared confident that he and Newsom would end up tangling in the general election.

“If you look in the dictionary for the words ‘Bay Area elitist,’ you see Gavin Newsom’s picture,” Cox told more than 100 people at a Wednesday night gathering of the Stockton Republican Women Federated. “This state is in trouble. It needs a manager. That’s why the president endorsed me.”

Follow California politics by signing up for our email newsletter »


Coverage of California politics »

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema and @philwillon on Twitter.