After nearly two years’ absence from politics, Southern California’s most popular progressive politician, Antonio Villaraigosa, is back on the stump. This time he’s running for a City Council seat, and he’s making no bones about eventually trying for a second time to become Mayor of LA.
In 2001, the former California State Speaker was handed a bitter defeat in his first mayoral quest. Then City Attorney and rival candidate James Hahn, a moderate Democrat assisted by Indian gambling money, buried Villaraigosa under an avalanche of racially tinged negative campaigning and walked away with a nine-point victory.
Villaraigosa’s defeat stunned LA progressives who had pulled out the stops in campaigning and canvassing for their candidate, a former ACLU president and union organizer. More than 9,000 fans and supporters poured out to overflow Villaraigosa’s campaign headquarters on election night, even though all polls predicted his loss. “The city had never seen anything like that before, nor has it since,” Villaraigosa said proudly in a recent interview. “That night I knew I was going to run for mayor again.” But then, he says, after some reflection he decided he would not immediately challenge Hahn to a rematch. “It occurred to me that as a city councilman I could accomplish many of the things I wanted to do as mayor,” he says. “And if elected I will serve out the four-year term. And then,” he says with a wide smile, “we’ll see where to go from there.”
So on this coming March 4, municipal election day, the 50-year-old Villaraigosa will try to wrest the 14th District Council seat from Nick Pacheco, a younger and more conservative incumbent. “This is make it or break it time for Antonio,” says one of his enthusiastic labor supporters. “If he wins, he’s on his way again. If he loses, well…we’re going to make sure he isn’t going to lose.”
Indeed, as it did during the 2001 mayoral race, the powerful County Federation of Labor is putting all its street muscle into the Villaraigosa campaign. And though City Council incumbents are hard to beat in LA, most observers give challenger Villaraigosa the edge.
But it will be no cakewalk. No sooner did the campaign begin a few months ago than the heavily Latino district was flooded with sleazy attack mailers, questioning Villaraigosa’s commitment to his Latino heritage and chiding him as an adulterer. Incumbent Pacheco condemned the sleaze, even though the individual who took credit for the attack was one of his close associates.