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Oakland Defeat Casts a Cloud on Villaraigosa

Assembly: Some blame speaker for Democratic loss of seat to Green Party. He denies discontent in his ranks. Others say rumblings about leadership are normal.


SACRAMENTO — Some lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle say Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa should take a lesson from Tuesday's ouster of the lower house minority leader.

Five months after becoming Assembly GOP leader, Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) fell unceremoniously to a rival.

Now some members see a chink in Villaraigosa's armor. The Los Angeles Democrat is taking heat for last week's loss of a special election in a strongly Democratic Oakland district. Veteran Elihu Harris was beaten in that race by the first Green Party nominee ever to win a legislative seat in the United States.

"It's a colossal embarrassment," said Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco).

Democrats, who hold a 47-32 edge over Republicans in the lower house, say the Oakland defeat has heightened grumbling about whether their leader is minding the store--doing enough to maintain the Democratic majority and even spending enough time in Sacramento. Villaraigosa devotes considerable time and energy to his Los Angeles operation.

Villaraigosa, who is barred by term limits from running for reelection next year, wants to hold onto the powerful speakership as long as he can, while weighing whether to make a run for mayor of Los Angeles.

The Democrats say they don't see Villaraigosa's position in immediate jeopardy. But Republicans have a slightly different view.

"This is a great time for new leadership. The Democrats are scrambling. They just lost big in Oakland," said Assemblyman Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), who last month made an unsuccessful bid to topple Pacheco before Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) finally succeeded Tuesday.

Villaraigosa dismissed suggestions that the upset victory of the Greens' Audie Bock in Oakland is fomenting discontent over his leadership.

"Leadership is about accountability. One of my responsibilities is to win elections. I didn't win. Elihu Harris didn't win. I have to take responsibility for that," he conceded.

But he maintained, "There's more unity in our caucus than at any time since I've been here."

Migden agreed that Villaraigosa's position is solid, but she cautioned: "It would be untrue to state that there have not been and will not be rumblings about leadership. That's the nature of the beast."

Moreover, she said, with members now limited by law to three stints of two years each in the Assembly, "term-limited speakers are insecure. . . . We are forced to think sooner rather than later about our futures. Colleagues become competitors."

But Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), an outspoken veteran lawmaker who has been at odds with Villaraigosa, laid responsibility for the Oakland defeat directly at the speaker's feet.

"The Assembly leadership is in charge of Assembly elections. . . . I blame our leadership for not taking the bull by the horns and making certain" a Democrat won the Oakland seat, said Floyd, who is Bock's seatmate on the Assembly floor. He is also angry that Assembly Democrats backed Harris in the primary election over an Oakland attorney he favored.

"Villaraigosa, he's the leader. Don't we always blame the leaders? Doesn't the leader have a responsibility to maintain our numbers?" Floyd asked.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the election setback could serve as a wake-up call.

"I think it says to us as Democrats that we can't take our strong majority for granted," he said. But he added that Villaraigosa deserves credit for having boosted Democrats' numbers in the Assembly last fall.

Others complained that Harris failed to mount an aggressive campaign.

"I don't think it's a wake-up call for the speaker at all," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "It's a wake-up call for any candidate who . . . fails to put together their own central [campaign] operation."

Villaraigosa said that he supported Harris "in a big way," including large infusions of campaign cash, but that ultimately the campaign didn't do enough to motivate voters.

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