Antonio Villaraigosa

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa(Ethan Miller)

National Journal

Kamala Harris is getting national buzz, but there’s a counter-movement building on behalf of a potential rival.

By Andrea Drusch
January 21, 2015

With only weeks gone but years left in California’s Senate race, national Democrats appear eager to anoint state Attorney General Kamala Harris as the 2016 successor to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee weighed in lauding Harris’ candidacy after she announced her decision last week, and high-profile sitting senators including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker also feted the new front-runner.

But outside the Beltway, another group of Democratic power players and donors is coalescing behind the goal of electing California’s first Latino senator, and they already have their candidate in mind: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“California has always helped to lead the way in terms of activism and prominence, and the courage to step up and say, ‘Now is our time.’ So why should this moment be any different?” said Democratic donor and Latino activist Henry R. Munoz III, cofounder of the Latino Victory Project.

Villaraigosa has been telling friends he’s grown closer in the past week to putting his name in the hat, and Latino leaders are eagerly ramping up for their chance to elect the nation’s only Mexican-American senator in a state they say has historically led the Latino political movement.

There has not been a Mexican-American U.S. senator in office since 2009, when Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar left his seat to become President Obama’s first Interior secretary. The three current senators of Latino descent—New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas—are all Cuban-Americans.

In Villaraigosa, Latino leaders see a prime opportunity to add another to name to the Senate roster. California is home to more than 14 million Latinos, of whom more than two thirds are Mexican-American.

Villaraigosa was a popular two-term Los Angeles mayor who chaired the Democratic National Convention in 2012—and he is being pushed hard toward joining the race. “He’s being mauled on the phone; people want him to run,” said one longtime Villaraigosa ally. “This is a legitimate, serious consideration to do it.”

Allies close to the former mayor say he sees a space for himself in a contest against Harris, and is growing closer to making his move. Before Boxer announced her retirement, many predicted Villaraigosa would instead run for governor in 2018, as he said as recently as December was his preference. But he has plenty of reasons for changing his plans.

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