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Mayor faces hurdles to advancement

Villaraigosa, once seen as a favorite to succeed Schwarzenegger, has opened the door to political rivals after a series of setbacks.

November 26, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Last year at this time, Democratic Party loyalists saw Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the early favorite to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Not any more.

The collapse of Villaraigosa's effort to gain substantial control of Los Angeles public schools, followed by revelations of an extramarital affair, have opened the door to others -- most notably Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

Beyond those setbacks and self-inflicted wounds, Villaraigosa faces timing problems that could severely complicate any attempt to become California's first Latino governor in more than a century.

Because the 2010 governor's race follows closely behind the 2009 mayoral election, Villaraigosa would have to wage simultaneous campaigns, raising questions about whether his primary allegiance is to the city or the state.

That could alienate voters and scare away financial backers who would be courted by other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, former Controller Steve Westly and Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

Villaraigosa's viability has been a topic of conversation for months among Democratic insiders and political scientists. Just last week, the California Majority Report, a Sacramento blog, dropped Villaraigosa in its rankings from first place to fourth behind Brown, Newsom and Garamendi.

"His political capital is a lot like the California housing market. It has taken a hit lately," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Politically he still has an impressive house, but the house isn't what it was a year ago."

Villaraigosa said he is too busy running Los Angeles to think about the governor's race.

Although as mayor he has been criticized for casting broad visions more than producing concrete results, Villaraigosa points to what he considers important successes: cutting the city's budget deficit amid declining revenues, securing state bond money to synchronize street lights, taking steps to reduce pollution at the city's busy port and gaining a trash fee hike to hire 1,000 new officers for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Villaraigosa frequently reminds audiences that crime has steadily declined on his watch to levels not seen since the mid-1950s, an outgrowth, he believes, of the gradual police expansion.

"I don't have two minutes to focus on the governor's race because I couldn't be more focused on the job I have," he said. "I love this job."

Villaraigosa's top aides believe he has turned the corner on a difficult spring and summer that saw a court reject his school district takeover and friends cringe at his affair with television journalist Mirthala Salinas. The latter news prompted Villaraigosa's wife of 20 years to file for divorce after having threatened to end the marriage years before over a previous indiscretion by him. On Saturday, sources familiar with the situation said Villaraigosa and Salinas have also since split.

Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg predicted a smoother 2008 that would see Villaraigosa produce a burst of concrete initiatives, including a new mass transit strategy, a package of gun-control initiatives and the launch of a plan to run two clusters of public schools in a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"The hard work will pay off. He's on a clear upward trajectory," Clegg said. "The mayor is really poised for a breakout senior season."

And that is precisely what he will need if he hopes to remain competitive in 2010.

"To get a promotion, you've got to tell the voters what you have accomplished," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, a guide to legislative races. "His ability to articulate that in a credible form will determine his viability to run for governor. . . . The score on his accomplishments is still out."

Villaraigosa has plenty going for him. He enjoys solid backing from organized labor and Latinos, who make up a growing segment of Democratic voters. And the mayor, a former Assembly speaker, maintains strong relationships with Democratic leaders in the capital and even with Schwarzenegger.

He has raised his national profile by serving as a co-chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid; no credible opponent has yet stepped forward to challenge him for reelection; and he is the only potential gubernatorial candidate from voter-rich Southern California.

All of the other possible contenders have bruises or baggage of their own.

Newsom, who drew criticism from across the nation when he championed gay marriage in San Francisco, weathered his own personal scandal earlier this year after admitting an affair with his campaign manager's wife. Westly failed to win his party's nomination for governor last year despite tapping his personal fortune for his campaign. And questions linger about the staying power of Garamendi, Lockyer and O'Connell.

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