Democrats Always Talk About Latino Voters, So Why Are They Snubbing Their Most Prominent Latino Leader?

Antonio Villaraigosa has the resume and name recognition for a strong California Senate run, but national party leaders are looking right past him.

Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles, meets with the National Journal in their Washington D.C. offices on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 20, 2015, 3 p.m.

In Texas, no mat­ter the year, no mat­ter how prom­ising the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is for Demo­crats, there’s a con­stant re­frain that the state’s di­ver­si­fy­ing demo­graph­ics will make it com­pet­it­ive. Wheth­er it’s an abor­tion-rights-de­fend­ing state sen­at­or (Wendy Dav­is, in 2014), mod­er­ate Hou­s­ton may­or (Bill White, 2010), Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Dal­las may­or (Ron Kirk, 2002), or cha­ris­mat­ic Latino busi­ness­man (Tony Sanc­hez, 2002), there’s long been hype about mo­bil­iz­ing His­pan­ic voters to make the state more Demo­crat­ic—but noth­ing has come of it.  

But in Cali­for­nia, where one of the coun­try’s most prom­in­ent Latino lead­ers is con­sid­er­ing a run for the Sen­ate, there’s very little ex­cite­ment about do­ing the same to help former Los Angeles May­or Ant­o­nio Vil­larai­gosa fill the seat be­ing va­cated by Sen. Bar­bara Box­er.

In the haste to coro­n­ate Cali­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Kamala Har­ris as Box­er’s in­ev­it­able suc­cessor, Demo­crats are over­look­ing her strongest po­ten­tial op­pon­ent in Vil­larai­gosa, who would make his­tory as the first His­pan­ic Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor or sen­at­or in a state where Lati­nos are now the largest eth­nic group. He’s ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing en­ter­ing the race, boasts strong sup­port among His­pan­ics, and has the highest name iden­ti­fic­a­tion of all the can­did­ates in the field.

So it’s aw­fully iron­ic that much of the early cov­er­age is so dis­missive of his pro­spects. In­stead of the hype that tra­di­tion­ally comes with trend­set­ting can­did­ates, the re­sponse to Vil­larai­gosa’s likely can­did­acy has been met with a yawn. He’s been treated like an af­ter­thought, men­tioned along­side longer-shots like bil­lion­aire polit­ic­al novice Tom Stey­er. Much of the cov­er­age is us­ing the same ar­gu­ments Re­pub­lic­ans em­ploy to down­play Demo­crat­ic pro­spects in di­ver­si­fy­ing states like Texas, Geor­gia, and Ari­zona: Lati­nos don’t show up to vote. And Demo­crat­ic lead­ers are con­spicu­ously un­enthused about his can­did­acy, even though the party badly lags be­hind Re­pub­lic­ans in elect­ing His­pan­ics to top statewide of­fice. (Re­pub­lic­ans boast four Latino sen­at­ors and gov­ernors; Demo­crats only have Sen. Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey.)

The dis­crep­ancy can be ex­plained by the ex­uber­ant ex­cite­ment over Har­ris, the hot pro­spect in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics since she was nar­rowly elec­ted Cali­for­nia’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al in 2010. The gap between en­thu­si­asm and res­ults began then. In a heav­ily Demo­crat­ic state, she barely won her first elec­tion, pre­vail­ing by only 0.8 per­cent of the vote, but was already hyped as a fu­ture Demo­crat­ic star. It’s as much a re­sponse to her bio­graphy as her agenda; she’s mul­tiracial, cha­ris­mat­ic, and sports an ac­com­plished re­sume.

Her as­cend­ancy to the top of the Demo­crat­ic re­cruit­ment list is a re­flec­tion on how much the Demo­crat­ic Party pri­or­it­izes iden­tity polit­ics over tan­gible achieve­ments. The Los Angeles Times ed­it­or­i­al board, in en­dors­ing her for reelec­tion, said she was “a work in pro­gress, with much po­ten­tial yet un­filled.” She came in­to of­fice op­pos­ing the death pen­alty and cham­pi­on­ing sen­ten­cing re­form, but she’s been cau­tious in im­ple­ment­ing the agenda. Her biggest ac­com­plish­ment has been in­vest­ig­at­ing banks en­ga­ging in un­eth­ic­al be­ha­vi­or over mort­gages. But while she’s earned de­cent marks as AG, without her com­pel­ling bio­graphy, her re­sume wouldn’t sug­gest she’s a top Demo­crat­ic re­cruit. In­deed, if her name were Kath­er­ine Har­ris, it’s un­likely she’d re­ceive all the at­ten­tion. One Demo­crat­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions strategist in­volved with her nas­cent cam­paign told me that she could be a plaus­ible fu­ture pres­id­ent, but struggled to list spe­cif­ic ac­com­plish­ments as at­tor­ney gen­er­al in the last four years. (“To be hon­est, I just star­ted learn­ing spe­cif­ics about her,” the source said.) 

Mean­while, Vil­larai­gosa isn’t get­ting the level of at­ten­tion that, say, the Castro broth­ers in Texas do. Part of that is be­cause of his age (he’s 61), and part be­cause he’s been out of of­fice for nearly two years. But that un­der­scores how im­port­ant a 2016 run would be—by 2018, he’ll be even older and five years re­moved from pub­lic of­fice for the gov­ernor’s and Sen­ate races. And while he faces ser­i­ous hurdles run­ning against Har­ris, he’s far more likely to have a strong im­pact next year than in 2018, a midterm year when His­pan­ics will be much less likely to show up to vote.

Con­sider: Vil­larai­gosa is one of the best-known politi­cians in the state, ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber 2014 Los Angeles Times sur­vey. His net fa­vor­ab­il­ity isn’t quite as good as Har­ris’s, but he holds bet­ter name iden­ti­fic­a­tion (77 per­cent have heard of him) and deep sup­port (52 per­cent fa­vor­able, 18 per­cent un­fa­vor­able) with­in the His­pan­ic com­munity. Even with their low turnout levels, His­pan­ics make up 17 per­cent of likely voters, nearly three times the num­ber of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an likely voters. He could com­pete with Har­ris in fun­drais­ing, boast­ing close con­nec­tions to deep-pock­eted Hol­ly­wood donors and main­tain­ing ties to big labor—with the not­able ex­cep­tion of the teach­ers’ uni­ons. And if Re­pub­lic­ans don’t clear the field for a fa­vor­ite (which is likely), or if Stey­er and oth­er cred­ible Demo­crats pass on a bid, there’s a de­cent chance he’d be on the bal­lot against Har­ris in Novem­ber. If he makes it to the Novem­ber bal­lot, he would likely be bet­ter-po­si­tioned than Har­ris to win over Re­pub­lic­ans and mod­er­ates than his out­spokenly lib­er­al coun­ter­parts.

“He’s not be­ing over­looked, but un­der­es­tim­ated. He’s been un­der­es­tim­ated for most of his polit­ic­al ca­reer, and he tends to win,” said Dan Schnur, a vet­er­an Cali­for­nia GOP strategist who ran un­suc­cess­fully for sec­ret­ary of state in 2014 as an in­de­pend­ent. “De­pend­ing on how the rest of the field comes to­geth­er, it’s likely he’s the only for­mid­able Latino can­did­ate in the race. It’s pos­sible he’s the only South­ern Cali­for­nia can­did­ate in the race. And while he’s pro­gress­ive on most is­sues, he’s put in good time on edu­ca­tion re­form [and] pub­lic-em­ploy­ee pen­sions in ways that could give him bi­par­tis­an ap­peal.” As an­oth­er Demo­crat­ic strategist put it: “Vil­larai­gosa wins with the three L’s: Lati­nos, labor, and Los Angeles.”

There’s no doubt that if he ran, Vil­larai­gosa would start out as an un­der­dog. As the Los Angeles Times notes, Har­ris has strong ap­peal with wo­men and pro­gress­ives and her geo­graph­ic base is in the Bay Area—all groups that turn out at (much) high­er levels than His­pan­ics. Vil­larai­gosa’s base of Los Angeles County con­sist­ently tal­lies the low­est turnout levels of any county in the state. Har­ris has got­ten a head start on con­gres­sion­al en­dorse­ments from al­lies with pro­gress­ive pull—Sens. Eliza­beth War­ren, Cory Book­er, Kirsten Gil­librand. Vil­larai­gosa will have to an­swer for an em­bar­rass­ing per­son­al scan­dal as may­or, after he cheated on his wife with a Telemundo an­chor—a story that got ma­jor play in the Span­ish-lan­guage press.

But if Demo­crats are ser­i­ous about turn­ing the grow­ing Latino vote in­to a more re­li­able vot­ing bloc, it will need to start in Cali­for­nia. And if Demo­crat­ic lead­ers push Vil­larai­gosa aside, it would be an­oth­er ex­ample of a party that de­liv­ers rhet­or­ic­ally for His­pan­ic voters, but fails to come through when it comes to put­ting one in high­er of­fice. The party’s in­ab­il­ity to nom­in­ate a His­pan­ic can­did­ate for one of its top po­s­i­tions is a glar­ing over­sight in a state where Latino in­flu­ence is most prom­in­ent. Vil­larai­gosa, more than most oth­er statewide can­did­ates, has the unique abil­ity to mo­bil­ize Latino voters—es­pe­cially in a pres­id­en­tial year when His­pan­ic turnout will be front-and-cen­ter on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s mind. To coro­n­ate an­oth­er can­did­ate would not just be a blow to one of the party’s most prom­in­ent His­pan­ic lead­ers, but to the lar­ger Demo­crat­ic ef­fort of lock­ing in long-term Latino sup­port.

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