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Mayor Plays a Waiting Game

July 28, 2006|Duke Helfand and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

Nearly two months after he won his party's nomination for governor and many of the state's leading Democrats endorsed him, Phil Angelides has yet to secure Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's blessing.

Villaraigosa says publicly that he is holding off for now because he needs to secure bipartisan support in Sacramento for legislation that would give him control of the Los Angeles public schools.

"So what I've said to Phil, and he's good with that, is that after this is over, of course I'm going to be with the Democrat," Villaraigosa said Thursday.

Some who are close to Villaraigosa acknowledge privately that he is also wary of tweaking Angelides' Republican opponent, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has promised to sign the schools legislation.

And the sense among those working hardest to push the mayor's agenda in Sacramento is that Villaraigosa is more likely to be dealing with Schwarzenegger than Angelides after the Nov. 7 election.

Apart from the politics of education reform, there is a less than happy history between Villaraigosa and Angelides, which has also played a part in the mayor's diffidence, according to some who are aware of the tensions.

Villaraigosa ran for mayor twice in the last five years. Both times, Angelides was noncommittal. Villaraigosa also feels spurned because while he was speaker of the state Assembly, he went out of his way to help Angelides, who was then running for office, according to associates of the mayor who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Now the tables have turned.

"Eventually, he's going to endorse," said one person close to the mayor. "He's just trying to make a point to Phil. I'm sure Phil has gotten the point by now."

The perceived snub has been especially noteworthy coming from the leader of the state's biggest Democratic bastion and a figurehead among Latinos, who are vital to Angelides' chances in November.

State Democratic leaders sought to downplay the rift between the two men.

"Antonio's a Democrat. I expect him to act like a Democrat at the end of the day," California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said. "And I think he will. I know he will."

The absence of Villaraigosa on the Angelides team underscores a broader problem for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Despite support from other Democratic heavyweights, including U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, rank-and-file party members have yet to fully embrace Angelides.

Two polls released this week revealed that apparent weakness.

The Field Poll found, for example, that 63% of Democrats back his candidacy, which is below the level of support that successful candidates typically receive from the party's rank-and-file. The same poll found Republicans rallying behind Schwarzenegger, with 85% supporting him.

A separate poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed a similar gap: 54% of Democrats supported Angelides, compared with 79% of Republicans who said they would vote for Schwarzenegger.

Pollsters said that Angelides must find ways to attract Democrats who voted for his primary opponent, state Controller Steve Westly, and other disaffected party members who failed to show up at the polls.

"He definitely has a ways to go," said Mark Baldassare, the institute's research director, noting that Angelides will probably need more than half of the independent voters to win in November.

The Angelides camp questioned the importance of the poll numbers, saying that it is too early in the campaign to gauge voters' interest.

"I think there's a number of Democrats in the state that just don't really know Phil Angelides at this point," said Bill Carrick, a senior Angelides strategist. "The nature of the primary was such that they didn't get to know him.

"I think as they get to know him better and understand who he is and what his values are and what he believes, they'll come to Phil in very large numbers," Carrick added.

Carrick also cited the Field Poll showing Schwarzenegger getting 16% of Democrats' votes, short of the estimated 20% the governor needs in his reelection bid.

Torres said it's the party's job to educate Democrats about their candidate, something the party has sought to do in recent days with a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign that portrays Angelides as a contrast to the Republican governor, calling him "a leader, not an actor."

But Torres voiced confidence.

"A lot of Democrats don't know him today, but by the end they will and they'll come around," he said. "They always do."

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