He may be skipping the 2016 stop, but former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sure seems to be on the road to somewhere.
Last week he visited Palm Springs and spoke to about 100 politicians from across the state about Sacramento’s failed approach to California’s water crisis.
“We need leaders that are willing to think big, that are willing to be as big as the crisis ahead," Villaraigosa said at the Water Education for Latino Leaders conference, where he also met separately with local leaders.
And this weekend he is also keeping himself busy. He is scheduled to travel to Fresno and speak at an event hosted by the local Hispanic Foundation. According to sources, he will be holding meetings with Fresno officials, supporters and community representatives as well.
Far from planting doubts about the future of his political career, political observers and close allies say Villaraigosa’s decision not to run for the Senate in 2016 reveals that he expects to conquer the center of the state’s political power and become California’s first Latino governor in modern times.
The former L.A. mayor, they say, has his sight set on the post he has dreamed of ever since he left the mayoral office more than 15 months ago. The consensus is that he will be one of the candidates for the Governor election in 2018, when Gov. Jerry Brown will be termed out.
“Conventional wisdom is that he is going to be running for governor,” Roger Salazar, a political consultant based in Sacramento, told Fox News Latino.
“His comments [when he announced he won’t be running for the Senate] left it clear that he still has a lot of public service left in him and that California is the state he loves,” he added.
And though still years away, he already seems to be preparing himself for the state’s top political post. Other political heavyweights considering to enter the race include California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who this week became the first candidate to announce he would run, as well as billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and former Controller Steve Westly, a Silicon Valley investor and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
When Senator Barbara Boxer announced in January that she would not seek reelection to a fifth term, Villaraigosa, 62, said that he was seriously considering a run for the Senate seat. At the time, he said he believed that Californians needed “progressive leaders in Washington who will fight for them."
But last month, after consulting to see if he had the money or support to win a Senate race, he pedaled back. "As I think about how best to serve the people of this great state, I know that my heart and my family are here in California, not Washington, D.C.”, he said, formally announcing that he was putting aside the idea of running for the U.S. Senate.
Numerous phone calls and e-mails to Villaraigosa about his political plans were not returned.
Close allies believe that Villaraigosa was put off by the rush to decide whether to run and wanted to stay close to his four grown children.
Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, a political opinion research organization, said that for a politician like Villaraigosa to decide whether to run a certain race can depend on what he believes he can accomplish in a specific office.
“Whatever you do as a senator, you have to do it along with other legislators, but a governor has a lot more impact and doesn’t have to be concerned with other members of Congress”, she said.
“This is especially true for a Democrat,” she added.
According to sources, the former mayor understands the governor race is still a long time away and for that reason has not yet formed his political team for the purpose of running. And when he does run, they say, he would have a great advantage for a gubernatorial bid, since he is sure to have the backing of California’s Latino community.
Villaraigosa, who was speaker of the California Assembly from 1998 to 2000, was elected L.A. mayor in 2005 with the backing of the Hispanic vote, becoming the first Latino leader of the city in modern times.
As one of the most prominent Latino politicians in the U.S., he was frequently tapped as a surrogate for candidates across the country wooing Latino voters. In 2012, he was chosen to lead the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“He would be very successful with Latino voters, no matter what he runs for. He’s had their votes before,” says Manzano.
Meanwhile, between now and 2018 Villaraigosa has several high profile jobs to attend to, along with a timetable that would give him an opportunity to build his personal savings.
Villaraigosa, who recently bought a home in Hollywood Hills for $2.5 million, collects an annual city pension of $97,832. He is also an advisor to nutritional products company Herbalife Ltd., a consultant for Banc of California and a member of the board of counselors for McLarty Associates, a global consulting firm, among other things.
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Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.
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