Former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announces campaign for governor

FILE PHOTO: Then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks to gay marriage supporters at a rally for two Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage in California.
FILE PHOTO: Then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks to gay marriage supporters at a rally for two Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage in California.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, has announced his bid to run for governor of California in 2018, a race already crowded with political hopefuls.

"We are a state that builds bridges, not walls. We are inclusive. We celebrate our diversity. And we welcome newcomers," Villaraigosa said in a statement Thursday released by his campaign, one that reflected this week's unexpected election of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"We know the answer to fear is hope. The answer to division is unity. And the answer to the millions who feel they have no voice is to make sure they are always heard."

Villaraigosa, a Democrat, served as mayor from 2005 to 2013. Before that, he sat on the City Council from 2003 to 2005 and served as speaker of the state Assembly from 1998 to 2000.

The former high school dropout from Boyle Heights eventually graduated from UCLA and then went on to the People's College of Law, according to his campaign.

"I was one of those kids they didn’t think was going to make it," Villaraigosa said. "But I was blessed to live in a state that gave kids like me a second chance, and I will keep paying it forward."

The former mayor enters a contest that has drawn a growing list of candidates, both well-known and lesser-known. They include Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who announced his bid in 2015, and state Treasurer John Chiang. Villaraigosa noted that he was getting into the race later than a number of others.

"We're a long way from June of 2018, I'm going to focus on, you know, getting up to speed if you will," Villaraigosa said, in one of two interviews Thursday with KPCC. "I think most people would say I'm the underdog."

Billionaire Tom Steyer, a major financial backer of several state ballot measures who appeared in related TV ads, has also considered running. But he recently told KQED’s The California Report those plans may have changed now that Donald Trump is the president-elect.

Others who could end up running include former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and ex-state Controller Steve Westly. All are Democrats.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, has also come up as a possible gubernatorial candidate.

David McCuan, a professor of politics at Sonoma State University, said Newsom has a strong head start in the race. In his view, competitors will likely have to distinguish themselves as more moderate candidates to be competitive under the state's new top-two system, which allows the top two vote-getters to advance from the primary regardless of political party. 

"Really what you're going to see is a candidate or an alternative to Newsom that has to stake out some middle ground. The problem with that kind of strategy is that that's exactly what Loretta Sanchez tried to do against Kamala Harris and she lost," McCuan said, referring to the 2016 race for California's U.S. Senate seat. 

Voters and political strategists are still adjusting to the state's new top-two system, which moves much of the competition for the seat to the primary. 

When Villaraigosa was sworn in as L.A.'s mayor, he became the city's first Latino chief executive since 1872. If elected, he has the chance to make history again as the first Latino governor since 1875, according to his campaign.

During his tenure as mayor, Villaraigosa was credited with championing Measure R, the funding proposal that is helping pay for the city's transit buildout, including the popular Expo Line segment from downtown to Santa Monica.

He also made improved school quality and graduation rates key goals. At one point, he made a move to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District by convincing state lawmakers to pass a bill giving him significant authority over the district, a move backed by charter school interests.

But the LAUSD board challenged the legislation in a lawsuit and prevailed. He then campaigned and fundraised for school board candidates who shared his pro-charter views and several were elected in 2006 and 2007.

Since leaving the mayor's office, Villaraigosa has served as an adviser to the nutritional supplement company Herbalife Ltd. It was a move that disappointed some of his supporters because of the firm's questionable sales practices.

In July, federal regulators announced a $200 million settlement that required Herbalife to reimburse consumers who lost money on its supplements. The company also agreed to make major changes to its sales and distribution practices.

Villaraigosa has also worked for a public relations firm and Banc of California after his mayorship and taught at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Villaraigosa took to the national stage during the 2012 Democratic national convention as DNC chairman. He ran into controversy over a vote on inserting a statement into the party's platform saying Democrats recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and reaffirming Democrats' belief in God. Although he fumbled the vote, the amendment was eventually added to the platform.

Before announcing his decision to run for governor, Villaraigosa held a "listening tour" in spring, traveling up and down the state and laying a foundation for his run. He said that people in the Central Valley and Inland Empire in particular told him that the government and candidates don't spend a lot of time there.

"People want to be included," Villaraigosa said. "This candidacy's going to be about giving voice to every Californian."

Villaraigosa noted that poverty and income inequality are big problems in those areas, with three Central Valley cities in the top five poorest nationwide and San Bernardino number 9 in the nation when it comes to poverty. He said that he wants to make sure that as the economy grows, we're growing together. He added that he's heard similar concerns from the inner city in places like Oakland and South L.A.

He also campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton earlier this year and sharply criticized GOP candidate Donald Trump, now the president-elect. 

"I've never seen a candidate like Donald Trump, who's not fit for office, who clearly is not ready to be commander-in-chief," Villaraigosa said. "I think particularly after this election, people are looking for a uniter, not a divider."

Villaraigosa added that he thinks he brings a civility that's different than what's seen at the national level and plans to chart a different path with California than what's happening nationally. He said that he wants to answer what he described as the palpable fear that people are feeling with hope.

This story has been updated.