Antonio Villaraigosa's Last Waltz

Antonio Villaraigosa in 2013, near the end of his second term as mayor of Los Angeles. Villaraigosa finished a distant third in last week’s gubernatorial primary, garnering just 13.5% of the vote. He will not advance to the November general election. 

DTLA - The end of Antonio Villaraigosa’s political career came not with a bang, but a whimper.

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We’re talking a serious, plaintive, bury-me-now kind of whimper.

The end was defining, the message from voters deafening. It was also, in its way, depressing, as it marked the final splat of a once high-flying politician whose potential had seemed limitless.

There was shockingly little drama as the music stopped playing. Although Villaraigosa had bounced in and out of second place in polls for months, aiming for a runner-up finish that would propel him to the November general election, reports in recent days indicated that second was slipping away. Observers I spoke with early on election day were already writing tombstone epitaphs.

Welcome to Electoral Funhouse

Indeed, it was clear within an hour of the end of voting on Tuesday, June 5, that AnVil was shuffling off the political mortal coil. Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom jumped to a big early lead, and Republican businessman John Cox rocketed into second place; Newsom would wind up with 33% and Cox, who as a GOP dude in California might as well start drafting his November concession speech now, scored 26%, nearly twice the 13.5% Villaraigosa grabbed (some provisional and other ballots remain to be counted, though not enough to change the outcome).

The big question quickly became whether AnVil would hold on to third place. He did, but not by much, as loopy Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen finished fourth with 10%.

What Art Thou Thinking, Antonio?

There will be spin and rhetoric, because there is always spin and rhetoric. Some will slam the mysterious snafu that left 118,000 names off L.A. County voter rolls, and while that deserves slamming and the kind of investigation that causes heads to roll, those ballots wouldn’t have made a difference. Others will question whether the presence in the race of two additional Democrats, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, siphoned some of the votes that would have gone to Villaraigosa. That question made much more sense before the election — the two got a combined 12%, so even if every voter instead went for AnVil and literally none chose Newsom, the erstwhile L.A. mayor still would have finished third.

If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Voters, particularly those in Los Angeles, showed that they remember the past. Villaraigosa was a remarkably underwhelming mayor who made a series of missteps that alienated a lot of the people who once believed in him. All the shiny new ads and attempts to gloss over past failings couldn’t convince Californians that he should be part of their future.

Up, Then Down

I’m not trying to kick AnVil when he’s down, and believe me, he’s down like that no-name boxer who last month got clobbered by Gennady Golovkin. But I also took plenty of shots at Villaraigosa when he was up.  

And the thing is, he was once, really, really up. 

Villaraigosa had a fantastic story and deserved a lot of credit: He overcame a tough childhood and was a self-made man who turned jobs in organized labor into political success. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1994 and three years later became Speaker, a post you only get if you’re darn good at politics and deal-making. 

He lost a tough 2001 mayoral run against Jim Hahn, and then proved himself an adept opportunist by swiping the 14th District City Council from incumbent Nick Pacheco in 2003 — this in a city where incumbents virtually never lose. During the campaign Villaraigosa told everyone who asked that he’d serve a full term on the Council, and then promptly went back on his word and ran for mayor in 2005. He got his revenge against Hahn, who would leave politics and later become a judge.

Villaraigosa’s 2005 inauguration “Dream With Me” speech was inspiring, and Angelenos were enamored with the city’s first Latino mayor in more than a century. He was exciting and charismatic — he wound up on the cover of Newsweek and on TV with George Lopez.

Whether all this went to his head and he believed his own PR, or whether his deep ambitions undermined him is impossible to say, but Villaraigosa quickly grew more enamored with the national spotlight than the local one, and he seemed uninterested in the grind that it takes to run Los Angeles. An affair with a TV reporter in 2007 ended both his marriage and his political honeymoon with the media. 

Then the Great Recession hit, and large raises that Villaraigosa had granted to public employees unions came back to haunt him, as there were layoffs of city workers. He was also slow to respond to an economy that was shattering. Public sentiment turned, and when it came time for his re-election bid in 2009, Villaraigosa earned only 55% of the vote against some cupcake contenders. By contrast, Eric Garcetti, who also has sky-high ambitions, notched 81% in his 2017 re-election.

Villaraigosa recorded one huge win as mayor, leading the charge for Measure R, a 2008 voter initiative that launched the mass-transit building boom that is re-shaping the way some people get around Los Angeles. But a companion effort, Measure J, was narrowly defeated in 2012. The only time that Villaraigosa’s office seemed to function truly effectively was when now-LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner spent 15 months as First Deputy Mayor.

Welcome to Los Beutnerangeles

It was telling that Garcetti’s 2013 mayoral campaign was built on the theme of “Back to Basics,” and nearly every move seemed to be based on this idea: Think what Villaraigosa would do, and do the opposite.

Villaraigosa then went to the political hinterlands, following in the steps of many pols and making oodles of cash by consulting for companies, which in his case included Herbalife and Banc of California. When it came time to run for office again, he thought he could shine up his mostly unimpressive past. 

Right Fight, Poor Result

Villaraigosa isn’t the only one with a scarlet L on his forehead. Chiang got one of the worst returns on investment ever, finishing fifth despite a sizable war chest. In the U.S. Senate primary, outgoing state Senator Kevin de León was decimated by incumbent Dianne Feinstein, 44%-11%, and almost finished third. Sure, de León advances to the general election, but his cookies have pretty much already been taken.

Give Villaraigosa this: He chose the right fight. Newsom was always the frontrunner, but he was flawed, with baggage including his own extramarital affair while mayor. Additionally, his appeal to the state’s most left-leaning voters created space for someone who could tread a more moderate track and connect with Californians not affiliated with either major party. AnVil had a path to victory.

Yet the former charisma had faded, and the fire-in-the-belly presence that once took him so far had been dulled. Villaraigosa never excited the populace. He never made California in 2018 believe in him the way that Los Angeles believed in him in 2005. Maybe he couldn’t overcome Newsom’s financial advantage. Maybe his ceiling was simply far lower than he realized.

He had a shot. In addition to some solid fundraising, a cluster of well-heeled charter school supporters, including Eli Broad and Netflix boss Reed Hastings, poured millions into a Villaraigosa independent expenditure committee. But this isn’t like Trader Joe’s, and they can’t get their money back because of the disappointing taste.

We’ve seen many unlikely comebacks, but with Villaraigosa at age 65, and a wave of younger California politicians refusing to wait in the wings any longer, it’s likely that his time in a high-profile elected position is done. 

I’m sure AnVil will do okay: Companies like Herbalife can always use a former mayor with a megawatt grin and connections up and down the state.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018