On a glorious sunny day in the winter of 2002, a woman opened her front door in Eagle Rock to find Antonio Villaraigosa asking for her vote to unseat Nick Pacheco, the incumbent City Councilmember. “If we elect you, are you going to stay there and do some good work for us?” the woman demanded. “Aren’t you just going to turn around and run for mayor again after a year or two?”
Villaraigosa told her, like he told countless other voters who answered their doors that day and throughout his council campaign, that he would stick around.
“Not only will I serve out my four years on the council,” Villaraigosa said. “I’m going to run for a second term. Then we’ll see what happens.”
On some front porches, though, when neighbors further pressed the former state Assembly speaker and unsuccessful mayoral candidate — he lost a close, bruising election to James Hahn in 2001 — Villaraigosa equivocated, just a bit.
“Well, of course, if there’s some kind of disaster, everyone has to serve in the best way they can,” Villaraigosa said.
After his defeat of Pacheco in the 14th council district on Los Angeles’ Eastside, Villaraigosa repeated those words at community events and public forums. As recently as March, when he addressed leaders of neighborhood councils around the city, he said he planned to fill out his term. Unless there was some kind of disaster.
In making his official announcement for mayor on Tuesday, Villaraigosa declined to say that disaster had struck. But he came close.
“A lot has changed in the last four years,” he said, without mentioning Mayor Hahn by name. “Los Angeles is the city of America’s promise, America’s future. It deserves a strong leader who understands that and can provide the leadership, the vision and a plan to make that future.”
He jumped into the race, he said, because his constituents asked him to.
“They said to me, we need a leader who we can trust,” Villaraigosa said. “A leader who can get the job done.”
Villaraigosa becomes the fourth major challenger to Hahn in a race that already includes state Sen. Richard Alarcon, city councilman and former LAPD chief Bernard Parks, and attorney and former state Assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg. All have sharply criticized Hahn, saying he has failed to show leadership amid county and federal criminal investigations of possible corruption in contracting at the city’s harbor, airports and water and power departments.
In 2001, Villaraigosa’s personal story — the product of a broken home, abandoned by an alcoholic father, tough times as a street kid, high school dropout, a major turnaround, university, law school, leadership in labor and success in politics — added a needed dash of excitement to the mayoral race and brought the story to the pages of national newspapers.
He has held on tight to the story, and recited it last week while speaking at John Kerry’s invitation to delegates in Boston at the Democratic National Convention. (Villaraigosa is a national co-chair of Kerry’s campaign.)
After announcing his run for Hahn’s office, Villaraigosa said he fully expects his “special relationship” with Kerry and Edwards to “translate into more federal support for Los Angeles” if Kerry is elected in November.
Cal State Fullerton Political Science Professor Raphael Sonenshein, an expert on Los Angeles politics and voting patterns, said Hahn, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa all have a good shot at getting past March and making it into a May runoff. But there are, of course, only two runoff spots.
“Antonio Villaraigosa is clearly a big factor,” Sonenshein said. “He has the most support of any candidate in the race — but he may not have a majority. In a way it’s better for Hahn if there are several challengers vying to get into a runoff instead of everyone coalescing around Hertzberg. Hahn’s a very strong closer in campaigns. He tends to be someone who appears to be drifting and then pulls it together.”
Organized labor will doubtless be a major factor. Miguel Contreras, the powerful leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, supported Villaraigosa for mayor last time out and pulled out all the stops just over a year ago to make sure Villaraigosa captured the 14th council district. But he has said Hahn has delivered for labor in his three years at the helm.
One official who backs Hahn, but asked to remain anonymous pending a formal endorsement announcement, said labor leaders are torn between the two candidates but will come around for the incumbent.
“The question is whether or not people are going to turn their back on a man who has been there for labor,” he said. “He’s been there for the janitors, the hotel and restaurant workers. He embraced them into the governance of the city. He has been a friend and a warrior for organized labor.”
Even if Contreras and the City Hall employee unions back Hahn, though, labor has traditionally been the base of Villaraigosa’s support. “I have no question in my mind that I’m going to win the hearts and minds of the majority of working families in Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said.