In one of the first in-depth interviews about his 2018 campaign, Antonio Villaraigosa told Calbuzz that the next governor must focus heavily on creating economic opportunities in areas of inland California that have not rebounded along with prosperous coastal cities.
“I think the folks in San Francisco and Los Angeles care about the people in San Bernardino and Fresno. I care about them,” the 63-year-old Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles and speaker of the Assembly, told Calbuzz. “I think the best way to move forward is to move forward together. If we’re going to govern this state with a goal of restoring the luster to the California dream, we’ve got to restore it for more people.”
Speaking to and for the more conservative Central Valley and Inland Empire, where Villaraigosa in recent months has been active and visible, might not, by itself, be a winning strategy for a Democrat in a general election. However, it could prove a formidable game plan in an open primary, where the goal is to make it into the statewide top-two runoff.
Having collected more than $2 million in campaign funds since announcing his candidacy in November ((name brand contributors include Michael Eisner, Ryan Seacrest, Reed Hastings, Eli and Edythe Broad, Molly Munger, Fabian Nunez, Stewart Resnick and Monica Lozano, to name a few), Villaraigosa appears to be confronting the key question about his strategic plausibility as a candidate in what will likely be a crowded field.
“I believe strongly that the next governor has got to focus on the parts of the state that aren’t reveling in the rebound,” Villaraigosa said. When asked how this message would work for people in cities along the coast, Villaraigosa had both an idealistic and practical response: “You speak to peoples’ better angels but also to the notion of what we need to be successful” as a state that grows when prosperity is more widely shared.
First Latino since 1875? Villaraigosa is, thus far, the only Latino in the 2018 race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown – a contest that to date includes poll leader Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. Other potential candidates whose names have been floated include San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (a Republican elected to non-partisan office), businessman environmentalist Tom Steyer, former Controller Steve Westly, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, not to mention Silicon Valley zillionaire and the Trump quisling Peter Thiel.
During statehood, California has not had a governor of Mexican ancestry since the brief term of Romauldo Pacheco in 1875 – and he was a Lieutenant Governor who filled out the term Gov. Newton Booth who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. No truth to the rumor Calbuzz covered that race.
While he would be the first Latino elected governor, however, Villaraigosa contends he will not make his heritage a central argument of his campaign.
“I realize everyone’s watching and as a first you have a unique responsibility to do a good job,” he said. “I want to be a governor for all of California,” he added. “I’m not focused so much on breaking that glass ceiling. I never have – not when I was speaker, not when I was mayor. I wanted to focus on governing.”
BE governor or govern? Your Calbuzzers, who’ve posed this question to gubernatorial wannabes for decades, asked Tony V. if he wants to be governor or if he wants to govern and, if the latter, specifically, what he wants to do. His reply:
I’m not looking for a job. I’m not looking for power or fame or privilege. I want to do something with the job. I’ve been majority whip, majority leader and speaker of the Assembly … My 20 years in political life has been about wanting to do big things … [When running for mayor] I told people, dream with me and I tried to do big things around education, transportation, infrastructure, jobs, the environment, public safety. And that’s what I want to do as governor. I want to govern. I want to take on the big challenges that this state faces.
He said he recognizes the enormity of the challenge. “My buddies make fun of me – in fact some of them have actually questioned my sanity,” he said. “You gotta take risks and you gotta be willing to fall on your face.”
He declined to say why he’s better for the job than his competitors.
They’re all good people and I don’t have any negatives to say about anybody, particularly so early in the race. I would just say this: I think what I bring to the table is that I’m a leader and a risk taker … I don’t want to compare myself to the others. But I’m willing to speak truth to power and take on the tough issues and I’ve had a knack for bringing people with me.
Yes and no, actually.
As our friend, the indispensable Seema Mehta wrote in the LA Times when Villaraigosa was considering running for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat: “Though Villaraigosa began his career in labor, he made enemies in that camp while he was mayor, notably by questioning the power of teachers unions. They are a critical group in a Democratic primary with the resources to shape the race — and to go all in to block his effort.”
I don’t want to spend my time screaming at Washington, DC. We need to double down on what we do well…expanding our economy, improving our business climate, creating jobs … [especially] in parts of the state that are not benefitting from that job growth and that economic success … not just lead the nation and world in setting climate change goals but double down on creating green jobs that provide a double bottom line for improving our business climate and improving our climate …
[California also should] use the courts where we are being threatened in a way that violates our constitution or our state prerogatives and use every tool at our disposal to challenge where we have to. But I think the best way to fight them is to double down on our success, to deepen it and to broaden it, to focus on what has worked for California …
We have to double down on what we do well, make the economy work for more people, lift more people into the middle class, train more of our folks for the jobs in the new economy, create more jobs in the places where the California rebound is non-existent or barely existent.
That’s a lot of doubling down on doubling down.
On more specific issues, Villaraigosa was clear on some and squishy on others.
There are 16 countries that either have high-speed rail or will build it. We have to get into the 21st Century. There’s no question that there are various technologies available but ultimately the notion that we wouldn’t make an investment in high-speed rail is not a notion that I’m willing to accept, not in California. So I support high-speed rail.
However, he added, we need to “value-engineer” it and “leverage it” by, for example, making investments in housing and job creation near train stations in Fresno and other parts of the Central Valley.
Gov. Brown’s twin tunnels water project:
Before I’d be supportive of that project I think we need to do a lot more to recycle, capture water runoff, clean up our underground aquifers, store water, look at the two dams that were promised in 1999… an all-of-the-above strategy that doesn’t require that kind of investment first – then the tunnels are an option.
The last time I looked there’s only one governor and it’s Gov. Brown … [Villaraigosa notes he wouldn’t take office until Jan 2019] … The state will have made some decisions long before that. I’m well aware that what we’re looking at right now, Jerry is facing somewhere between a 20 to 40 billion dollar cut. I think most people think it will be, at a minimum, the elimination of MediCal. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Our goal has to be to provide care for them, understanding that we’ve got to pay for it…And that $20 billion hole on top of the $1.8 billion (projected deficit) that he announced – we’ve got our work cut out for us. I certainly support the notion that that’s what our goal has to be…That’s why these policies [Trump’s] are such a threat because we have expanded health care to a greater degree than any state in the country.
We’re not sure a guy who wants to be the next governor can just stand aside and hope such a massive problem, with tragic human consequences, will be cleaned up before he takes office. (Devil’s advocate here, but maybe he should advance a strategy that could make him stand out when he’s actually in a multi-candidate campaign for governor. But, hey, if we were smart we would have become political consultants making 15 percent on every multi-million dollar campaign TV buy).
We also asked Villaraigosa to boil his campaign down to a simple bumper-sticker theme. He said he hadn’t thought about that although maybe it would be “Giving Voice to Every Californian.” Pretty big bumper strip or really small type.
He might do well to just accept the Calbuzz moniker we gave him years ago, based on his birth name, Antonio “Tony” Ramón Villar, Jr., as in Voz Para Mi: Tony V.