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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Why Davis Endorsed Villaraigosa

March 26, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Two years ago, I asked Antonio Villaraigosa--then the Assembly speaker--whether he worried about maybe looking like a Gray Davis sycophant. That got a rise.

"I'm not going to be a sycophant for anybody," he replied. "I didn't get here because I'm a shrinking violet. But my focus will be on cooperation--not confrontation."

And it was. Any beefs the speaker had with the new governor, he kept mostly private. Villaraigosa wasn't a sycophant, but he was a loyal soldier.

"I'm hitching my wagon to his horse," the Assembly leader repeatedly said. "He's the guy, the leader of our party."

Although a liberal, the speaker protected the centrist governor's legislative agenda that many Democrats grumbled was too moderate.

The political payoff came last week when Davis endorsed Villaraigosa for L.A. mayor. Davis said his first-year success "simply would not have happened without the partnership I established with Speaker Villaraigosa. . . . He builds bridges, not barriers. . . . He's a man you can trust."

It was historic. Governors simply do not endorse in contested mayoral races, especially when fellow party members are competing. Why create enemies and risk political capital in a nonpartisan contest that means little personally?

Moreover, the first thing a governor usually asks when considering any endorsement is whether the candidate is a probable winner. A loser prompts embarrassing questions about the endorser's political clout.

Yet, Villaraigosa's prospects are iffy. He has momentum, but still trails, fighting to survive the April 10 election and advance to a two-candidate runoff. So why'd Davis do it?


First, good politicians return favors. Reward and punish. Davis is sending a signal that he honors loyalty. It's an especially timely message now that Democratic lawmakers are starting to rebel against what they whisper is the governor's energy inertia.

This relationship, however, got off to a rocky start. Villaraigosa was charmed by airline tycoon Al Checchi and endorsed him over Davis in the 1998 gubernatorial primary. The lawmaker thought Davis was too uninspiring to win.

But Villaraigosa ultimately escaped punishment--even though Davis notoriously holds grudges--by quickly sidling up to him, starting in the primary. As Checchi's TV ads turned nasty, and Davis picked up steam, the street-smart barrio kid began quietly distancing himself from his own candidate's attacks. He'd frequently pull Davis strategist Garry South aside at candidate forums and emphasizes that the ugliness was not his doing.

On primary election night, Villaraigosa literally embraced the victor and offered to help him motivate Latinos. He devised a strategy for demonizing then-Gov. Pete Wilson. He cut Spanish-language TV ads for Davis, loaned him a Latino political operative and did stump speeches.

After the election, the speaker shepherded the governor's education reforms and personally sponsored one of the most controversial bills, establishing teacher peer review. Davis considered that gutsy, since Villaraigosa was a former teachers union organizer and unions initially fought the bill.

There was one blowup. At a state party convention, Villaraigosa called a news conference and tried to pressure Davis into unilaterally killing Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure. South publicly pummeled him. The speaker then charged into the governor's office, cursing South.

But it quickly blew over and the speaker returned to being the loyalist--while earning the governor's support for his own bills on family health care, urban parks . . .


Second, for Davis this is about political gratitude--defined by political lexicographer William Safire as "favors done now in anticipation of return favors to come."

A Latino L.A. mayor could do wondrous favors for an ambitious governor. If he's not mayor, Villaraigosa still could help deliver Latino votes in a tough reelection battle.

But another mayor--even a Democrat--would not feel obliged to support Davis. That's why there's risk here for the normally cautious governor. It's a point personally made to Davis by ex-advisor Kam Kuwata, now a strategist for front-runner James K. Hahn. Davis wouldn't listen.

His backing of Villaraigosa will help Davis with liberal Latinos. It will help Villaraigosa with white moderates and by reinforcing his position as the officially endorsed Democratic candidate.

Villaraigosa quickly began running a TV ad featuring Davis--and the candidate's late mother, whom the narrator says "read him classics like Shakespeare at night."

Says Villaraigosa: "That's why I know what sycophant means."

This isn't a sycophantic relationship, it's symbiotic.

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