UPDATE: Despite loving the attention, Antonio Villaraigosa has decided not to run for Senate. He may, however, run for Governor.
Over the weekend, Eric Bauman, the chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, paid a visit to Antonio Villaraigosa. The former L.A. mayor was deep into his third week of serious consideration over whether to run for Senate. As they sat overlooking the ocean, Bauman found him to be in good spirits.
“I got a sense the old Antonio was back,” Bauman says. “He was calmer than I’d seen him in years.”
And why not. Villaraigosa hasn’t been this relevant in ages.
Even in his last few years as mayor, he was a lame duck, hemmed in by a weak economy and gaping budget deficits. As soon as his second term was up, he made like Rabbit Angstrom and got out of town.
He spent much of the last 19 months as far from California politics as he could get, spending much of the time in New York with his 31-year-old girlfriend. While juggling about 15 different consultancies, lectureships and board seats, he has been absent from state politics. He hasn’t tweeted since June 2013.
Now, he's back from the wilderness. Just by announcing that he’s thinking of running against Attorney General Kamala Harris, he is at the center of the conversation again. Consultants are courting him, activists are urging him to run, and Latino politicians are rallying to his side and calling him “Senator.” Even newspapers are urging him on like it’s 2005 again.
“Antonio Villaraigosa's resume definitely qualifies him to be a U.S. senator and suggests the potential of a pretty effective one,” opined the usually gruff George Skelton in the pages of the L.A. Times. “Big city mayor. State legislative leader. Player in the national political arena. Plus: iron will, charm and street smarts (usually).”
Who wouldn’t like to read that about himself over coffee and a muffin?
Now, sure, perhaps not everyone is thinking primarily in his interests. Garry South, the veteran political consultant, has been campaigning for Villaraigosa to enter the race as though his livelihood depends on it.
And as for the press, the elder statesmen of Calbuzz put it eloquently, arguing that Villaraigosa should run because “Calbuzz needs a story… Either Antonio runs or it’s back to nap time for us.”
All of which is to say that the good times can’t last forever. If he gets into the race, he’ll no longer be the one getting courted. He’ll be doing the courting, talking to donors and working the phones like a boiler room salesman. He’ll also be declared the underdog on day one, and will have to fight that label in every news cycle.
On the other hand, if he decides not to run, he’ll quickly fade back into obscurity until the governor’s race in 2018.
No wonder he's letting this decision play out. Sure, there’s a risk that he starts to look indecisive or weak. There’s also the possibility that the anticipation around his candidacy starts to curdle. That began to happen a little bit last week, as Latino politicians got to grumbling that Latinos were being taken for granted and Villaraigosa was being pushed aside.
None of that resentment, by the way, is coming from Villaraigosa. He has never seen himself as strictly a Latino politician, and frankly has very little to feel resentful about right now. With the notable exception of Willie Brown, the power brokers (such as they are) are patiently waiting on Villaraigosa to make up his mind. If he feels pressure to make a decision, it's not showing. He’s having a great time.
The big question is whether he’s gotten enough of the spotlight to last him for a while. Or, having placed one foot in the arena, does he decide he can’t resist?