December 15, 2018

Confident Villaraigosa eyes governor’s office: ‘I was everybody’s mayor’

Though he’s not Jewish, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be the most Jewish candidate in the 2018 election for California governor.

In a recent visit to the Journal’s office, he sold his long connection with L.A.’s Jewish community — as well as its other ethnic communities — as a winning attribute for the state’s next chief executive.

“I was the Jewish mayor, I was the Muslim mayor, I was the Korean mayor,” Villaraigosa said. “I was everybody’s mayor. I was in every community. I think that counts for something.”

Villaraigosa is one of several Democrats running to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in next year’s gubernatorial election. The others are Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, California Treasurer John Chiang and Delaine Eastin, the former state schools superintendent. Among Republicans running are Travis Allen, a state assemblyman from Huntington Beach, and David Hadley, a former assemblyman from the South Bay. The Journal has extended invitations for interviews to leading candidates for governor.

Villaraigosa’s back-to-basics campaign is aimed at asking voters to let him do for California what he did as Los Angeles mayor from 2005 to 2013.

Asked about education, he cited a turnaround in the high school dropout rate in L.A. during his term as mayor. Asked about California’s role as a climate leader, he cited a decline in the city’s emissions during his tenure. On transportation, he cited the rail lines and busways his administration either built or initiated.

Villaraigosa sought to paint himself as a veteran legislator and administrator who would get the state’s trains running on time — literally, with long-awaited high-speed rail.

But moreover, he sold himself as the only major candidate in the race who would lead with experience and solid ethics. Asked about how he differed from Newsom and Chiang, he quickly shot back, “The courage of my convictions. Demonstrated leadership.”

Although Newsom is seen as the frontrunner, a June poll from UC Berkeley put Newsom and Villaraigosa near a tie, at 22 and 17 percent of the vote, respectively, with almost 40 percent undecided.

Making his gubernatorial pitch, Villaraigosa turned first to education and job training.

A former speaker of the California State Assembly, he lobbied to bring Los Angeles public schools under mayoral control. While that effort failed, he led a group that took over 16 of the L.A. Unified School District’s lowest-performing schools, and their graduation rate improved more than 40 percent between 2008 and 2015. Among the schools he helped rehabilitate was his alma mater, Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, which had a significant Jewish population when he attended.

“I ran on that,” he said of school improvements. “I’m going to run on that this time around.”

Villaraigosa’s vision for education in California includes more per-pupil spending, technical education at the high school level and greater connectivity between high schools and community colleges.

“Everybody’s got to graduate from high school with either a skill or college-ready,” he said.

On infrastructure, the former mayor touted his help in winning voter approval for Measure R, a county sales tax that raised billions of dollars for transportation projects such as the Purple Line train down Wilshire Boulevard. But L.A. projects like the that subway line also are funded partly by federal dollars.

“It wasn’t just Measure R money,” Villaraigosa said. “We went to the federal government. I went to [former President Barack] Obama. At first, they laughed me out.”

He said the president told him, “ ‘You’re asking for an earmark for L.A.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m asking you to reward cities and counties that are putting [up] our own money.’ ”

Villaraigosa promised California would use the same tactics under his leadership.

He said he supports a high-speed rail project in the works between Los Angeles and San Francisco, saying it would help connect the economically challenged Central Valley with the wealthy metropolitan centers.

“At what point are we going to get into the 21st century?” he said.

While he said he would lobby the federal government in funding California’s public works and work to protect health care funds, he promised to take on President Donald Trump’s administration when it comes to immigration and the environment.

“We’re actually going to take a page out of Texas’ book,” he said, promising to fight the president in court as Texas did repeatedly under Obama.

Villaraigosa is a liberal Democrat, but he set himself apart from the more liberal elements of his party at several points in the two-hour interview.

He pushed back against the idea of a single-payer health care system for California in the near term, an idea California’s legislature considered this year.

“I philosophically support single-payer, and I have since 1994,” he said. But he estimated it would cost more than California’s annual budget to achieve — an impossible benchmark for now.

“I think one day we’re going to get there,” he said. “We should build toward that, but today’s not that day.”

He suggested environmental reviews could be expedited or loosened for projects with significant public benefit, such as affordable housing, and said, “fixing the broken regulatory environment so you can do it quicker and cheaper” could help speed up infrastructure works.

He promised to confront anti-Semitism from both political extremes, saying that discriminatory incidents against Jews on liberal California college campuses was “the left meeting the right.”

Moreover, Villaraigosa said he would make the governor’s office a platform to speak out against bigotry in all its forms.

“Eight years as mayor, I never shrunk from using my bully pulpit against anti-Semitism,” he said.

The former mayor didn’t miss the opportunity to tout his long relationship with the city’s Jewish community.

Villaraigosa, 64, grew up in Boyle Heights in East L.A. at a time when the neighborhood’s status as a bastion of Jewish life was fading but still apparent. Last year, he was the keynote speaker at Fiesta Shalom, an annual gathering of Latino and Jewish community leaders hosted by Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles.

He described multiple trips to Israel and said he’s visited the home of every consul general the Jewish state has sent to Los Angeles since 1994.

He sees his connection to L.A.’s ethnic and racial communities as an asset.

“We need a governor that’s comfortable in every community. That’s why I criticize the Davos Democrats,” he said, referring to the Swiss city that hosts an annual gathering of the global elites.

“It’s real nice driving your Tesla,” he said. “But people drive Toyota pickups too. My mother rode a bus. The Democratic Party in this state has got to be for those people, too.”