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Villaraigosa, Democratic convention chairman, finds his star rising from disappointments

By David Siders, The Sacramento Bee –

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Antonio Villaraigosa said this summer that he would like some day to be governor of California, he acknowledged an ambition that appeared until recently to have slipped beyond his reach.

The mayor of Los Angeles, beleaguered by the weak economy, an extramarital affair and a series of shortcomings at City Hall, was re-elected by an underwhelming margin in 2009.

Los Angeles magazine put a photograph of him on its cover behind the headline, “Failure: So much promise, so much disappointment,” and Villaraigosa sat out the gubernatorial race the following year.

In recent months, however, the former California Assembly speaker has regained some of his old swagger. In Charlotte, N.C., this week to gavel in the Democratic National Convention as its chairman, Villaraigosa is now considered a potential candidate for an appointment in a second Obama administration.

He also has rejoined Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris at the top of a list of Democrats considered likely contenders for governor or U.S. Senate.

“It would have been really easy to write him off a couple of years ago,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But now you’d have to consider him as one of the next generation of potential leaders of California.”

When he was first elected mayor, Villaraigosa was heralded as a leading indicator of the rising prominence of Latino politicians in an increasingly diverse state. His re-emergence began in earnest last year.

He raised his profile nationally as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, using the position to lobby for passage of a federal transportation bill containing a low-interest loan program for billions of dollars in public transportation projects, including in Los Angeles.

He was named convention chairman in February, and has appeared in front of Democratic groups throughout the country and on national television in the months since.

Villaraigosa, 59, said in an interview that he is not contemplating an immediate run for office. When asked if he might challenge Gov. Jerry Brown if Brown runs for re-election in 2014, Villaraigosa said, “No, I don’t see any chance of that.”

He said he might affiliate with a think tank or university when he terms out as mayor next year.

“I think there’s time for a little time out,” Villaraigosa said.

How credible a candidate Villaraigosa would be if Brown does not run in 2014 — or later, if he does — is unclear. No Los Angeles mayor has ever been elected governor, and Villaraigosa’s reduction of city employees and his unsuccessful effort to assume substantial control of Los Angeles city schools has alienated labor interests traditionally critical to a Democratic candidate’s success.

Earlier this year, the local Service Employees International Union circulated fliers comparing Villaraigosa to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, labor’s bugbear, and the union criticized him viciously for his trips out of state on behalf of Obama’s re-election campaign.

“We know you are busy flying all over the country planning your big convention party and auditioning for your next job,” the union said in a postcard addressed to the mayor. “But Los Angeles residents need you now. Our services have been cut to the bone. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We need you to do the job we elected you to do, which is manage the city. Here in Los Angeles. So please, come back to L.A. and do your job.”

Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, said employees have been “bitterly disappointed” with Villaraigosa, whom he accused of focusing exclusively on “burnishing his image at the national level for whatever it is that comes next for him.”

Asked what that might be, McOsker said, “I don’t want to give him any ideas.”

Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, says he is pro-union and collective bargaining. He volunteers his reduction of the city work force as evidence of successful budget management, though he is aware of the difficulties a frayed relationship with labor and other Democratic constituencies could create.

“Yes, I do think I would have a tough time in a primary,” Villaraigosa said, “but why would you want to be in elected office if you’re not taking on the tough issues?”

Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, said his cousin’s decisions as mayor “were not always his first choice, but were the most rational decisions given the economic crisis of these times.”

He called Villaraigosa “a great mayor in very trying circumstances.”

Villaraigosa grew up in East L.A., and once wore on his right arm a tattoo — later removed — that said “Born to Raise Hell.” When he was elected to the Assembly in 1994, members of the Latino caucus who had supported his opponent, Bill Mabie, were so upset they refused to tell Villaraigosa when they were meeting, said former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who roomed with Villaraigosa in Sacramento when the two were in the Legislature.

“He just showed up and kept showing up and building relationships. He wouldn’t accept ‘No’ for an answer,” said Hertzberg, who represented Sherman Oaks in the Legislature. “He’s friends with all these guys, now. He just works it.”

Villaraigosa, who is not burdened by a lack of self-confidence, considers his accomplishments to be “fairly continuous throughout the years.”

The statistics he recites include the declining rate of violent crime in Los Angeles, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, hundreds of acres of new parks and passage of a sales tax increase to pay for public transportation projects.

“I know I’ve kind of caught a little attention, maybe a little wind here, but all of this stuff we’ve been doing all along,” he said. “We’ve been working hard every day, kind of schlepping.”

Yet in certain areas Villaraigosa fell short of his promise. He proposed to plant 1 million trees throughout the city; his administration has planted about 335,000, which Villaraigosa’s office said is far more than previous administrations. He persuaded the state Legislature to pass a law giving him significant control of the city’s schools, only to see the measure thrown out in court. He promised to expand the city’s police department to 10,000 officers, and was criticized when he fell just short of that number — though Villaraigosa may reach the threshold still.

“We’ll announce in September that we hit 10,000, which, if you saw an article recently, they said that I always set a high goal and I only did 9,943,” Villaraigosa said. “Oh yeah, I’m going to hit 10,000.”

Last week, Villaraigosa’s office suggested he may have overshot on his timing, saying the department is more likely to reach the 10,000-officer threshold closer to the beginning of next year.

“That’s not happening as soon as he thought,” press secretary Vicki Curry said.

Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said Villaraigosa had “a hard time in his first term, there’s no question about that.”

Critics said Villaraigosa was unfocused, and his affair with a Spanish-language television reporter led to the breakup of his marriage in 2007, disappointing many of his supporters.

“The affair was a big thing for a lot of people, especially women voters and a lot of Latino voters,” he said. “But I think it was more, some people started to feel that there was a little bit too much fluff there.”

Regalado said Villaraigosa turned out in his second term to be “a fairly good mayor” and a “good voice” for the city. His travel for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including his lobbying for federal transportation funding, benefitted Los Angeles, Regalado said.

Of Villaraigosa’s chairmanship of the convention — and the attention he will enjoy for one more week — Regalado said, “That’s more about Antonio.”

Last week, Villaraigosa traveled to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., to provide on-air criticism of Republican messages.

In Charlotte, he will remain on TV, and is expected to benefit from his ability as chairman to help influential people gain access to speaking roles and other events.

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