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Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign within a campaign

The L.A. mayor's reelection bid has some mysterious aspects -- until you consider he's a likely candidate for governor.

February 14, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Barring a truly unforeseen event -- something on the order of alien abduction, perhaps -- Antonio Villaraigosa will be reelected mayor of Los Angeles.

That doesn't mean, however, that the coming election is wholly uninteresting. Whatever the requisite campaign pieties, it seems increasingly clear that the mayor (who, you'll remember, is also a former Assembly speaker) has his eyes fixed somewhere north of the Civic Center -- say, the center of Sacramento, where the Capitol building stands.

"I'm not going to make a promise I can't keep," Villaraigosa said this week when Associated Press political reporter Michael Blood asked whether he would complete a full term if he were reelected. Discussing a possible run for governor next year, Villaraigosa kept the door distinctly open: "I can tell you that I will look at the issue further down the road."

Well, maybe not that much further.

There are some things about the incumbent mayor's current reelection campaign that have seemed mysterious. But they become somewhat clearer in the context of a statewide race. Take, for example, his fervent support for Proposition B, the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act, which will put the Department of Water and Power into the solar power generation business in a big way. The one thing Proposition B -- which was conceived and written by two powerful locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- will unambiguously accomplish is the creation of more union jobs that offer reasonable wages and good benefits.

That's nothing to be dismissed, particularly in the current economy. But at least as important, for Villaraigosa, is the fact that the measure's passage will help remind organized labor that the mayor, a onetime organizer, remains at heart a union man -- even if he has to lay off city workers to balance next year's budget.

More important, support for Proposition B helps further align Villaraigosa's gubernatorial ambitions with two realities of statewide Democratic politics: the growing importance of Latino voters and the concomitant growth of organized labor's influence.

According to people close to the mayor's political operation, his hopes of capturing the nomination in the Democratic gubernatorial primary turn on the fact that Democratic races are decided in two places -- the Bay Area and Southern California, mainly Los Angeles. Their calculation is that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown will split the vote of the Anglo-liberals who predominate in the Bay Area, while Lt. Gov. John Garamendi will shave off non-Latino voters in his Central Valley base.

That opens the way for the 56-year-old Villaraigosa to capture the nomination by overwhelmingly carrying two groups: Latinos and union members. According to Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, Latinos will make up 25% of Democratic primary voters in 2010. In Southern California, where the L.A. mayor already enjoys stellar name recognition, more than a third of the voters will be Latino; in Los Angeles County, that percentage may be as high as 40%. Obviously, the mayor will gain a substantial bump with these voters if he is the only Latino in the race.

But labor support matters too. Guerra predicts that one in five voters who cast ballots in the primary will be non-Latino union members. And what's more, labor's influence among Latinos is strong and growing. Not only do Latinos belong to unions in greater numbers than other ethnic groups, but studies show that even Latino households in which nobody holds a union card tend to be strongly influenced by labor's political agenda. That's because California unions generally enjoy the support of the Catholic Church and, particularly in Southern California, have become inextricably linked to questions of Latino progress and to a progressive position on immigration.

A study released this week by Guerra and his associates identified the 100 most important elective offices in the region and then looked back half a century -- to 1959 -- to determine their ethnic and racial distribution. The study found that, of those 100 offices, only one was held by an African American, one by a Latino and two by Jews. Today, Latinos occupy 33 of those 100 offices and African Americans hold 15, while 19 of the officials are Jewish and four are Asian American.

That's change by anybody's measure. And now Villaraigosa has a real shot at the governor's office.

So this mayoral election is uninteresting only if you don't recall that electoral politics, like chess, is about the next move.

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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