The re-election of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is all but certain on Tuesday. The Democratic mayor remains popular with voters, and he faces opponents with little money and even less name recognition. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports that during his first four years as mayor, few have challenged Villaraigosa's growing political influence.
Frank Stoltze: Four years ago, dignitaries including former Vice President Al Gore and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined thousands of people on the south lawn of City Hall for the inauguration of the first Mexican-American mayor in modern Los Angeles history.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: Fellow Angelenos. Let's make Los Angeles a city of purpose. Let's dare to dream. (Speaks in Spanish)
Stoltze: Fernando Guerra heads the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. He says Antonio Villaraigosa can credit two groups for his rise to speaker of the state Assembly a decade ago and then to mayor.
Fernando Guerra: His link to two incredible constituencies that are just ascending in the past 10 years and may be at their apex, and that's Latino political power, and labor.
Stoltze: Villaraigosa once was a labor organizer, and still enjoys close ties to the head of the powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor.
Guerra: If you are an elected official and you want to run for office, to have the endorsement of the mayor, almost immediately bring those two groups.
Or if you've lost the endorsement of one of those two groups, you can neutralize that by getting the mayor. So he plays a very incredible role as being a cue for voters, for political campaign contributors, and even for the media.
Stoltze: That's important in a system where the office of mayor is relatively weak. But Villaraigosa's popularity extends well beyond Latinos and labor.
[Mayor greeting people]
Stoltze: Perhaps more than any other L.A. mayor, he loves public events. He presses the flesh as few others have. On Friday he turned up at an African-American History Month poster contest for kids.
Villaraigosa: So I want you all to say, "I'm a winner."
Kids: I'm a winner.
Villaraigosa: No, no, no, say it like you mean it.
Kids: I'm a winner.
Villaraigosa: Say it again.
Kids: I'm a winner!
Villaraigosa: I'm a winner, that's right.
Stoltze: Pilar Marrero's been covering Villaraigosa for more than a decade. She's the political editor of La Opinion.
Pilar Maerrero: Sometimes people look at him as somebody who is kind of slick, in a way. You know, he is too political. But that has served him well because he's been able to get power with a smile.
Stoltze: That smile is always ready for the TV news cameras. Marerro says the 56-year-old media savvy mayor can be sensitive about his appearance.
Marrero: I made a comment in my story that he looked tired a little bit, that he had dark circles under his eyes. And the next time I saw him, he was like "Oh, if you were 56 years old, you would too have circles under your eyes." He didn't like it that I said that because he likes to be told that he looks great all the time.
Stoltze: Occidental College professor of politics Peter Dreier says Villaraigosa wields power because he builds consensus and brokers deals. The mayor's helped settle more than a few labor conflicts. Dreier says conservatives have been reluctant to oppose him.
Peter Dreier: He's so popular and his chances of winning are so high that the developers and the business community know that they've got to deal with him.
Stoltze: And deal with his ambitious environmental goals that have won him praise from the left. Political consultant Kerman Maddox points to another example of the mayor's savvy – his work on the campaign trail for Democratic presidential candidates, starting with Hillary Clinton.
Kerman Maddox: But as soon as it was clear that Barack Obama was going to be the nominee and Hillary exited the stage, he did a quick pivot and got involved with the Obama campaign and did everything he could, worked really hard in those areas that the campaign needed help.
Stoltze: That's paid off with access and invitations to high profile events.
Maddox: And so he's got really good relationships around the county.
Stoltze: Which could come in handy for fundraising.
Maddox: Could come in handy for a lot of things you might want to do in the future, Frank!
Stoltze: That future could include a run for governor next year. Villaraigosa refuses to rule that out.
Villaraigosa: Down the line, I certainly am not just going to dismiss the idea of serving in another capacity. But I can tell you that it's going to be very difficult to take me away from a job that I love.
Stoltze: He said he loved serving as an eastside city councilman too, before he abandoned the post for the mayor's office less than two years into the job.
Public records show that Villaraigosa's spent more than $3 million so far on his re-election campaign against no-name opponents. Nearly two-thirds of it came from outside city limits – from around California and across the country.