Antonio Villaraigosa, left, and Eric Garcetti at Barbara Boxer's victory party, in 2010EXPAND
Antonio Villaraigosa, left, and Eric Garcetti at Barbara Boxer's victory party, in 2010
Neon Tommy/Flickr

Mayor of Los Angeles Is a Dead-End Job

Former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, now running to be the next governor of California, said the saddest thing ever at a reception in July (the quote appeared in a recent L.A. Times profile):

"Maybe I’m yesterday’s news. Maybe I’m just a guy who was starting out 20-some-odd years ago, broke glass ceilings — but maybe my time is over.”

It's incredible to think that Villaraigosa, once all youthful zest ("Your energy is flowing through me!”) and boundless energy, is now 64 and taking on the persona of aging gunfighter out for one last score.

To be fair, Villaraigosa remains the second or third favorite candidate for governor, behind Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. A recent poll, however, put Villaraigosa 16 points behind Newsom and just about even with Republican candidate John Cox. And his fundraising has lagged behind that of Newsom and his other big Democratic rival, State Treasurer John Chiang.

With the Villaraigosa candidacy apparently flagging, it's worth asking the question: Why do L.A. mayors always fail at their runs for higher office?

Compare our mayors to those of other California cities: Former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein went on to the U.S. Senate, where she's remained for 25 years and counting; former San Diego mayor Pete Wilson went on to governor (and a very bad presidential run); Newsom was mayor of San Francisco before getting elected as lieutenant governor. Even Jerry Brown was once mayor of Oakland, a stint between his two terms as governor.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, no mayor has ever gone on to higher office. Sam Yorty ran unsuccessfully for governor three times. Tom Bradley ran for governor twice, and though he came damn close the first time, in 1982 (and was already being talked about as a vice presidential pick in 1984), he failed in both attempts. Richard Riordan also ran for governor and lost.

According to California voting data expert Paul Mitchell, the jinx is partly due to Los Angeles voters' relative apathy.

"L.A. County voters turn out at a much lower rate than in the Bay Area, especially in gubernatorial primaries," Mitchell says. "It’s hard for L.A. candidates to really break through when they're weighted down by this underperforming base."

Mitchell says Villaraigosa is doubly handicapped: Not only do Angelenos vote less than their numbers would suggest, but so do Hispanic voters up and down the state.

Los Angeles–based political consultant Bill Carrick points to a fundamental difference between Northern California and Southern California voters.

"We’re not as parochial as Northern Californians," Carrick says. "We’re inclined to be open-minded about voting for someone from the north. We don’t have that same kind of hometown attachment they do."

But, he hastens to add, the fact that an L.A. mayor has never gone on to higher office might be a mere aberration. "I just think that’s just an accident of history," he says. "I don’t think it’s important."

Carrick has good reason to say this: One of his clients just happens to be the sitting mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti. And Garcetti just happens to be flirting with the idea of running for higher office — maybe for governor, or senator, or possibly even president, as some have speculated.

Political science professor Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State Los Angeles’ Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, also says he thinks the L.A. mayor jinx is a bit of a historical fluke. But, he says, mayors all over the country faced an uphill battle running for office in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when big cities were plagued by rising crime and poverty.

"Cities were in decline, and mayors were saddled with that," Sonenshein says. "Now, cities around the country are thriving, so mayors are looking at higher office."

That could be welcome news for Villariagosa — and for Garcetti.

"Almost every election breaks one of these traditions," Carrick says. "Hey, we never had a New York real estate tycoon as president either!"

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