National Journal

By Andrea Drusch
March 5, 2015

Antonio Villaraigosa may be sitting out the Senate race, but the ambitious former Los Angeles mayor hasn’t closed the book on his political career. The Democrat’s statement last week that he would not run for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat hinted that his eyes remain on California’s 2018 governor’s race—and the possibility that the state’s booming Latino population can finally lift one of its own into high office.

Yet while Villaraigosa might fare better in polls against someone other than state Attorney General Kamala Harris, the leading Democratic Senate candidate, many of the problems that would have plagued a Villaraigosa bid for Senate may continue to haunt him. Villaraigosa, who Time magazine named one of America’s 25 most influential Hispanics in 2005, has long appeared to be the Latino Democrat best poised to take advantage of the population changes in California. But those fast changes have also promoted a new set of rising stars as Villaraigosa mulls a third decade in elected office.

“Mayor Villaraigosa was a great mayor for Los Angeles and I know he has great plans for the future, which we’re all interested in, but as soon as [Harris] called and asked for support, it was easy to give,” said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

Garcia, a 37-year-old Peruvian-American immigrant, is Long Beach’s youngest mayor and an early backer of Senate frontrunner Harris. Like a number of Harris supporters, he’s a fan of the mayor. But when Garcia talks about the future of the Democratic Party, he focuses on the newcomers.

“Latinos—and I think I can speak for a lot of us—we just want the best candidate, it’s not so much about electing a Latino to elect a Latino,” Garcia said. Harris, he added, “has a great record as attorney general, she’s dynamic, she’s a woman, and would also be very historic running for the Senate.”

Many Latino leaders saw Boxer’s retirement as a prime opportunity to elect California’s first Latino senator, and Villaraigosa has long been a political standard bearer for the community. But even though he and his advisers studied polling showing him doing very well with Hispanic voters, Harris—who is half-African-American and half-Indian—kept Villaraigosa from consolidating minority support. According to a source familiar with Villaraigosa’s deliberations, Villaraigosa’s support from black voters, always high in his mayoral runs, bounced significantly in polling matchups against white Democrats like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who already has started a 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

That made 2018 look like a better bet, especially considering his longer-term interest in being governor. Villaraigosa considered, but decided against, running for that office in 2010.

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