It’s official. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday he’s joining the race for California’s highest office in 2018 after months of speculation.
Villaraigosa, 63, who has taken a break from politics since leaving City Hall three years ago, said he’s running for governor largely to rebuild the state’s shrinking middle class.
The former Democratic Assembly speaker announced his decision and launched campaign website antonioforcalifornia.com two days after Republican real estate mogul Donald J. Trump clinched the presidency in a stunning electoral upset over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I think that the way to restore the luster of the California dream is to give voice to more Californians, to focus on parts of the state that frankly have been left behind, that haven’t had a voice,” Villaraigosa said in a telephone interview. “I think it’s been clear who has been left behind. We saw that in this campaign. I think we heard from working people and people in the middle class who feel like the economy is not working for them.”
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Several other high-profile Democratic candidates have announced their intention to run for the post, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, state Treasurer John Chiang of Torrance, and Delaine Eastin, former state schools’ chief. Billionaire investor and environmental activist Tom Steyer has said he’s considering a run but told KQED Radio’s “The California Report” this week that he may focus on his activism to fight Trump instead.
While there’s been some speculation that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti would run, his political strategist Bill Carrick said Thursday that he’s running for re-election in March “for a job he really loves — and that’s where his focus is.”
Villaraigosa, who lives in Hollywood and is in the midst of a weeks-long “listening tour” around the state, said residents in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley have felt ignored by political candidates who spend little time in their regions.
He said he would focus on the state’s aging infrastructure, innovative financing and “ensuring that places like the Inland Empire and Central Valley are places where we’re growing our economy as well.”
“I want to be a voice for all of us,” he added.
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Villaraigosa’s history working in the labor movement, his experience in the state Legislature and on the Los Angeles City Council give him a “pretty solid record” to stand on, said Tom Hogen-Esch, who teaches politics at Cal State Northridge. As the only known Latino candidate so far, he has the advantage of having a base of Hispanics — as well as other Democrats — who have supported the two-time mayor in the past.
Newsom, however, is also considered an early front-runner. While being lieutenant governor is not considered a very high-profile position, Newsom’s strong and early support of same-sex marriage was a “political risk that has turned out to be a real boon to his career,” Hogen-Esch explained.
Villaraigosa is a “top-tier contender” who has become an even stronger candidate in light of Trump’s electoral victory because in two years the Democratic party base will be motivated to turn out in possibly unprecedented numbers, said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. Villaraigosa — a Clinton supporter — will be well-positioned to take advantage of that, he said.
“One of Clinton’s greatest problems in this campaign, was her inability to motivate voters from minority communities,” Schnur said. “It’s not just that Villaraigosa is of Hispanic descent, but his political career demonstrates an ability to mobilize these voters very effectively.”
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Both Newsom, who championed legalizing recreational marijuana in California, and Steyer, who reportedly spent about $13 million on ballot measures this election season, worked this past election to boost their stock with California voters. However, Villaraigosa’s pro-immigration efforts may resonate with California voters in an even greater way, Schnur said.
However, fundraising may be Villaraigosa’s biggest challenge in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Schnur said. Both Newsom and Chiang have been able to raise “immense amounts of money” in their previous state campaigns. And Steyer, if he runs, has shown that he’s willing to write large checks for issues he cares about, he said.
In 1994, Villaraigosa was elected to the California State Assembly and three years later became Assembly speaker. In 2001, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles and lost but was elected to the City Council in 2003. Two years later, he became the first Latino to be elected mayor of Los Angeles in more than 130 years. While serving two terms, he became one of the country’s most visible Mexican-American politicians.
Villaraigosa, who was born Antonio Ramón Villar, married Corina Raigosa in 1987. The couple combined their surnames and became the Villaraigosas. They divorced in 2007 amid the public fallout from the then-mayor’s extramarital affair with Telemundo news anchor Mirthala Salinas.
His image was bruised again after photos of him and actor Charlie Sheen, known for partying hard and his brushes with the law, came to light as his name was being circulated as a contender for a possible Obama administration post.
Villaraigosa also was fined more than $40,000 for ethics violations after he failed to disclose receiving free tickets to L.A. Lakers games and other events.
In August of this year, Villaraigosa married Patricia Govea, who works in the fashion industry. The two exchanged vows in a ceremony in Mexico with about 100 friends and family in attendance.
Since leaving office, he has filled his time giving speeches, lecturing at the USC Price School of Public Policy and stumping for Clinton.
Villaraigosa said he’s also running for governor because he believes unity is the answer to the “coarse nature of politics” and division in the state.
“I’m running to bring people together around solutions, and particularly lifting more people up into our middle class by improving our schools and investing in our infrastructure,” he said.
Senior Editor Anita Bennett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.