One in an occasional series of columns based on interviews with major candidates for governor of California.
At 64, the passion still comes through when Antonio Villaraigosa talks about California.
“I haven’t stopped wanting to change the world,” he declares while explaining why he’s running for governor. “I want to restore the state’s luster.”
Speaker of the state Assembly for almost three years and mayor of Los Angeles for eight, Villaraigosa spent 56 days over the last year touring parts of California that major politicians rarely see, and he says he learned a lot.
Unlike Richard Riordan, his immediate predecessor as L.A.’s mayor, Villaraigosa did not return from his “listening tour” talking about “strange places” he visited. Rather, he’s now eager to help uplift the many places where he says Californians are hurting.
“In many areas, the recession is still on. People feel the economy is rigged and just doesn’t work for them,” he said in an interview. “We need to improve the economy in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino counties) and we need to improve educational opportunities for young people there. By 2025, we will have 1 million less college graduates in this state than we need for the sophisticated jobs to be filled.”
Villaraigosa, out of public office since 2013, also wants to improve the state’s plumbing, capturing more storm water in new reservoirs, recycling more discarded water and getting water supplies to places that receive too little.
One of at least four major 2018 candidates for governor, Villaraigosa is careful never to utter a critical word about current Gov. Jerry Brown. But his improved plumbing probably would not include Brown’s pet project, a putative $40 billion set of water tunnels aiming to bring Northern California river water under the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to farms and cities further south.
“We (the state) never came through on promises we made in 1999 to build at least two more dams and reservoirs,” he said. One of those would be the proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin in Fresno and Madera counties. Villaraigosa said that dam alone would significantly cut the more than 1 million acre feet of storm and snowfall runoff that flowed to sea from California this winter and spring.
Villaraigosa runs second among Democrats in recent polls and fundraising reports. He was Assembly speaker when state government committed — with no firm timetable — to building that dam.
He’s also aware that while he broke one glass ceiling as the first Latino mayor of the state’s biggest city in the modern era, he has two more barriers left to shatter. He knows no Latino has served as governor since Romualdo Pacheco in 1875 and that no former Los Angeles mayor ever has. One, Sam Yorty, tried twice during the 1960s and early ’70s.
And he knows he’ll have to overcome the historic animosity for Los Angeles that persists in parts of Northern California. To do that, he said, “You have to show people you are who you say you are. I can say ‘Go, Giants,’ for example, but only when they’re not playing the Dodgers. People have to see you care and you’ll get your share of the vote.”
Villaraigosa starts with an advantage among Latinos, who voted for him in 80 percent proportions when he ran for mayor.
“I’m used to breaking barriers,” he said. “No Latino before me had been elected mayor of Los Angeles. By the end of my two terms, people didn’t talk about me as a Latino mayor, but just a mayor, and that was a good thing.”
Villaraigosa, like rival Gavin Newsom, the current lieutenant governor and ex-mayor of San Francisco, knows he’ll have to overcome his record of womanizing. “I’ve taken responsibility for that,” he said. “I’ve acknowledged that I made mistakes. And after apologizing and healing with my family (but not getting back together with ex-wife Corina), I went back to work. People will have to decide this race based on a broad spectrum of factors and I know that will be one.”