LOS ANGELES — Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday began his 2018 bid for governor with a new website, confirming his entrance into what is expected to be a competitive California race.
After a three-year hiatus from the political limelight, Villaraigosa joins a heady field of candidates that is expected to grow larger in the months ahead.
The Democrat’s decision comes after months of relatively quiet, subtle moves to drift back into the conscious of the California electorate, including an extended “listening tour” through the drought-ravaged Central Valley.
While Villaraigosa remains a familiar political figure in California, he will face tough competition among fellow Democrats.
Longtime political rival Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, launched his campaign in February 2015 and has been feverishly raising money ever since. State Treasurer John Chiang of Torrance also has jumped into the race, as has Delaine Eastin, who served eight years as California’s top education official. Former state Controller Steve Westly and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire, also are considering gubernatorial bids.
Villaraigosa flirted with a run for governor in 2010, shortly after the beginning of his second term as mayor. But the formidable Jerry Brown appeared to have the Democratic nomination in his grasp early in that race. Villaraigosa ultimately decided he couldn’t “leave this city in the middle of a crisis” as Los Angeles struggled to recover from economic ravages of the Great Recession. At the time, L.A. was attempting to whittle down a $530 million budget deficit, a 12.5 percent unemployment rate and a flood of home foreclosures.
The allure of the office never left him. Just days after he left office as mayor, Villaraigosa said he wanted to run for governor. When Sen. Barbara Boxer announced in January 2015 that she would not seek re-election, the former mayor spent weeks considering a possible run for her seat. But, again, the grail of a California governor’s office once occupied by Earl Warren, Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan still beckoned.
For Villaraigosa, whose eight years as L.A. mayor came to a quiet end in 2013, the challenge will be to recapture the political electricity that enveloped him in 2005, when the former Assembly Speaker and Los Angeles city councilman made history by becoming L.A.’s first Latino mayor since 1872.
Villaraigosa’s victory at the time was seen as a harbinger of rising “Latino Power,” which actually was the headline on a Newsweek magazine cover adorned with his picture.
He quickly embraced the urban revival underway in downtown and Hollywood, and successfully led the campaign for Measure R, a $35 billion transportation package passed by voters in 2008 that imposed a countywide half-cent sales tax. The measure is credited with reshaping the region’s notoriously inefficient transit system. Under his watch, the city also hired hundreds of new police officers and violent crime plummeted.
But during his tenure, the city also struggled to cope with plummeting revenues amid the nation’s economic downturn. He wrestled for concessions from public employee unions that were necessary, in part, because of raises he had approved before the recession.
Villaraigosa has said that his biggest failing and disappointment during his time as mayor was personal: the breakup of his marriage, which occurred after he acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a television newswoman. It’s unclear if his political image has fully recovered. The same could be said for Newsom, who had a highly publicized affair with his former campaign manager’s wife while serving as San Francisco mayor.
In August, 63-year-old Villaraigosa remarried, tying the knot with Patricia Govea in a wedding ceremony in Mexico. The couple now live in a contemporary house in Hollywood Hills, with impressive views of downtown L.A. and the Hollywood sign.
After leaving office, Villaraigosa has worked as an adviser to controversial nutritional products company Herbalife Ltd., which could become a political vulnerability. He also did work for the Banc of California and the global public relations firm Edelman, and has been a part-time professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Over the past six months, Villaraigosa has slowly inserted himself back in the political scene. In June, he formed a political action committee — Building Bridges, Not Walls PAC — to combat anti-immigrant policies promoted by Donald Trump, and a month later at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia he ripped Trump against for proposing the mass deportation of immigrants who entered the country illegally.