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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

After a Long, Coy Courtship, Villaraigosa Backs Angelides

Despite a show of unity, mayor resists criticizing Schwarzenegger, who must OK schools plan.

September 06, 2006|Michael Finnegan and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

After three months of waiting for the Los Angeles mayor's endorsement, Phil Angelides used a joke Tuesday to brush off Antonio Villaraigosa's conspicuous delay in putting his popularity to work for his own party's nominee for governor.

Villaraigosa, a national star of the Democratic Party, "wanted to plan a big wedding, and big weddings take time," Angelides told a crowd of hundreds packed into a Los Angeles school auditorium for the mayor's announcement.

The event's splashy theatrics -- a brass band, dancing, hundreds of screeching schoolchildren and 13 television cameras to capture the scene -- only underscored the political energy that Villaraigosa has denied Angelides over a difficult summer for the state treasurer's campaign to oust Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"This is a man with the courage of his conviction," Villaraigosa said, echoing an Angelides campaign line that has rarely drawn so much attention.

Yet even as Villaraigosa appeared with Angelides in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Tuesday, he left open the possibility that he would soon campaign with Schwarzenegger, too -- for billions of dollars in public works bonds on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Villaraigosa also declined to criticize the Republican governor, who has vowed to sign a bill that will give the mayor some of the power he has fought to gain over public schools.

"You know, my mother raised me as a young boy; I remember her telling me, people want to know what you're for, not what you're against," Villaraigosa said at a stop with Angelides in San Francisco's heavily Latino Mission District. "I'm for Phil Angelides."

Villaraigosa's muted approach to Schwarzenegger is one of many signs of the governor's success, so far, in using his incumbency to encroach on his Democratic rival's natural support base, most recently by striking deals with legislators to fight global warming, raise the minimum wage and offer prescription drug discounts.

"It's been masterful," said Jude Barry, who managed state Controller Steve Westly's campaign for governor in the Democratic primary. "It seems they have a list of Democratic issues that they want to systematically take off the table."

On a Labor Day campaign swing, for example, Angelides could not criticize Schwarzenegger for agreeing to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, since that has long been Democratic dogma; instead, he questioned the governor's commitment to enforce the law if reelected.

"He'll try to weaken it," said Angelides, who has used his clout on state pension boards to pressure corporations to take steps against global warming. "He'll try to gut it."

Union leaders traveling the state with Angelides on Monday also found themselves in awkward spots, thanks to Schwarzenegger's use of his gubernatorial powers to mend fences with labor. Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn., was one of Schwarzenegger's most outspoken critics last year after he broke a deal to restore school money diverted elsewhere during the state's budget crisis. On Monday, she questioned his trustworthiness, but when asked whether she felt gratitude for his restoration of the school money, she responded: "I don't think I'm going to answer that question."

And Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, felt compelled to remind hundreds of union members at a Los Angeles breakfast that Schwarzenegger's moves this year contrast with his more conservative approach last year.

"It was Arnold Schwarzenegger who twice vetoed the minimum wage, remember that?" Pulaski said.

"Yes!" the crowd hollered.

"It was Arnold Schwarzenegger who tried to take away our education funding. Do you remember that?"

"Yes!"

Incumbency is not always a blessing. Former Gov. Gray Davis was hobbled by the energy crisis that erupted on his watch. And the threat of a full-scale federal takeover of the state's troubled prison system looms as a source of potential trouble for Schwarzenegger.

But when it comes to Villaraigosa, incumbency has been a useful tool for Schwarzenegger. Beyond the school bill, which Schwarzenegger will soon sign into law at a joint appearance with the mayor, the governor wields power over billions of state dollars that could flow to Los Angeles projects and offer political dividends to Villaraigosa.

"A mayor has to work with those who can do favors for the city," said government professor John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College, who recalled former Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's support of Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo for reelection in 1994.

Villaraigosa's personal ambition is another backdrop to his maneuvering in the contest for governor. He is widely seen as coveting a run for governor himself; an Angelides loss could speed his chances.

Political scientist Larry N. Gerston of San Jose State called such calculations "three-dimensional political chess."

"I think they're looking well beyond November," he said. "These guys all have agendas stacked, almost like airplanes trying to land at the airport."

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