Villaraigosa’s big moment arrives with Democratic convention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Democratic National Convention prepares to open, Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the gathering, is in a frenzy.

He is surveying preparations at the Time Warner Cable Arena, doing a string of media interviews with reporters from around the nation, and hosting gatherings like Saturday’s private dinner at the hip Osso restaurant, where young Democratic activists clamored for photographs with the Los Angeles mayor and top party leaders stopped by to chat.

His schedule is full of meetings with influential groups, such as a breakfast speech to the Iowa delegation Monday, where he will be announced as the speaker at their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a slot often filled by a politician aiming at higher office.


Villaraigosa’s frantic week reflects the role that the mayor has taken this election cycle as a top surrogate for President Obama and a national face of the Democratic convention. But some in Los Angeles have questioned whether his energies are too focused at promoting himself at the expense of the city he will lead until next year.

He dismisses such criticism, ticking off a list of accomplishments from his tenure — making the city safer, reforming the pension system, seeking to reform the city’s schools and — leaning forward, gripping a reporter’s arm — planting many trees.

“I’m so proud to be the mayor. If something big happened in Los Angeles this week, I would go back,” he said in a lengthy interview. “Why? Because I’m the chair of the Democratic Party convention because the people of L.A. honored me with the opportunity to serve as their mayor. So the least I can do is work my tail off to the end and to try to finish as much as I can.”

Villaraigosa is also focused on writing the six minutes of remarks he will deliver to thousands of delegates Thursday — arguably the biggest speech of his political life — shortly before Obama accepts the Democratic nomination. Although they come from different political perspectives, Villaraigosa said his speech would be similar thematically to those given at the Republican National Convention last week by Sen. Marco Rubio and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“I think it’s important to have a little bit about who you are. Most people don’t know who the mayor of Los Angeles is, or the chairman of the [convention], so it’s important to have a little biography, how that life brought me where I am today, celebrating the opportunity America we all live in, but also saying because of that life and the opportunities I’ve had, this is the path I’ve chosen,” he said.

Villaraigosa’s role inevitably leads to speculation about what he will do once he leaves office. He said he planned to join a think tank or a university and work in the private sector. And he plans to join the speaker’s circuit.

“You have no idea how many invitations we get to speak,” he said. “We turn so many down that we upset people.”

Still, while he freely admits that he would “love” to be governor someday, he said he had no immediate plans to run for office after his second and final term ends in 2013.

“I might change my mind, but right now it would be a mistake to run for office immediately after doing all this,” he said of his years in the Legislature, the City Council and as mayor. “I need time to reflect.”

Villaraigosa demurred when asked what he would do if a reelected Obama asked him to join his administration.

“That’s a hypothetical,” he said. “I will just say that’s not where my mind-set is.”

Still, there is some legacy-building afoot. Villaraigosa is taking pains to counter his image as a rabidly partisan Democrat, saying that although he was more strident when he was younger, his path now is seeking the “radical center.”

He said that while he has long backed traditional liberal causes such as opposing the death penalty and supporting same-sex marriage, he has broken with orthodoxy by pursuing reform of the pension system, environmental regulations, and teacher seniority and tenure rules. That is a natural byproduct of his role as mayor, he said.

“Mayors are much less married to orthodoxy, much more focused on results, much more practical,” he said. “I’m very much a progressive, but I believe strongly that we ought to be balanced in our approach and prudent with our resources.”

Though he says he needs a “timeout” to reflect on his period in elected office, he is clearly not finished with public life.

“I like to say I want to ride into the sunset with my head up high. I want to finish as strongly as I can as much of what we started,” he said, later adding: “You can see my energy. I’m not tired.”

And with that, he left the interview and turned to an aide in the hotel hallway.

“I want to work out,” he said Saturday evening. “I already went this morning, but I need to go again.”