What Went Wrong for Villaraigosa: A California Stalwart Ponders His Loss for Governor

Antonio Villaraigosa at his home in the Hollywood Hills.CreditKayla Reefer for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Antonio R. Villaraigosa was the high-riding mayor of this city for eight years. His election as its first Latino chief executive in modern times was an electrifying moment. Mr. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, has over the years expressed high ambitions for his future: a cabinet secretary in a Hillary Clinton White House. Governor of California. A next-generation leader for Latinos across the nation.

But Mr. Villaraigosa saw those ambitions dashed last week in a dispiriting third-place finish in the primary for governor of California last week, a showing that not only eliminated him from contention for that office — but probably, as he acknowledged in a ruminative interview at his home in the Hollywood Hills on Wednesday, from elected life.

He drew just 13 percent of the vote after a campaign calling for California to confront an economic divide that he warned threatened its future. It was a stunningly poor showing given the arc of his career: City Council, State Assembly, Assembly speaker, mayor, chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. And it came even after charter school advocates financed a $23 million independent campaign on his behalf.

“My message resonated in areas where people are struggling — it didn’t resonate where people are doing well,” Mr. Villaraigosa said, sitting at a dining room table in his home, near wraparound windows that offered views of the Hollywood sign, downtown Los Angeles, the Pacific Ocean and Griffith Park. “I understand Latinos voted two to one for me. They just didn’t come out in big numbers.”

He faced, he said, considerable hurdles, some his own making, from the moment he decided to run to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat.

“Look, I’ve been out of office for five years,” he said, after using his phone to adjust the volume of the jazzy music coming from hidden speakers scattered around the sprawling top floor of the house. “I had never run for statewide office before. I had started at a big disadvantage.”

Still, the loss was particularly striking because Mr. Villaraigosa stood to be the state’s first Latino governor since the 19th century. His election would have been an historical milestone, all the more so because it came at a time when President Trump has been leading an assault on California immigration policies, drawing condemnation and demonstrations from many parts of the state.

His third-place finish suggested to some that Latino voters have yet to become the major political force in this state that their numbers would suggest. Or perhaps Mr. Villaraigosa, who left City Hall an unpopular figure after a tenure that included a high-profile affair with a television reporter, was not the man they wanted to be the symbol of modern-day Latino power.

Mr. Villaraigosa lost to Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and John Cox, a Republican businessman who won the endorsement of Mr. Trump: Those two will face each other on the November ballot. Mr. Villaraigosa said he and his aides saw his own prospects wane as support for Mr. Cox rose after the Trump endorsement.

Over the course of a 45-minute interview — a break, he said, from writing thank-you letters to supporters — Mr. Villaraigosa said he took responsibility for his own loss.

He acknowledged that he left City Hall a decidedly unpopular figure, as many in the city turned against him — viewing him more as a showman than as a chief executive, particularly after the affair. And his life today, as a wealthy businessman living in the Hollywood Hills, is a long way from his roots — growing up in a working-class family in East Los Angeles — which some analysts suggested might have contributed to any weak showing among Latino voters.

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“My message resonated in areas where people are struggling,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “It didn’t resonate where people are doing well.”CreditKayla Reefer for The New York Times

Roberto Suro, professor of public policy and journalism at the University of Southern California, said that Mr. Villaraigosa’s campaign for governor never matched the excitement of his races for mayor, or for that matter, his early years in City Hall, when he was often seen with celebrities and presidents, showing up at the Oscars, Dodger games and glamorous Hollywood events.

“He didn’t have any of the buzz he did in the first two mayoral elections,” said Mr. Suro, who has studied Latino political power in California. “We had people on the West Side then who said, ‘We have to show what kind of city we are by electing a Latino mayor.’ I didn’t sense any of that. It wasn’t there.”

Mr. Villaraigosa drew a somber contrast between what he found when he ran for mayor — crowds waiting to greet him, banks of television cameras at every news conference — and this relatively desultory campaign. “Every time we had a press conference we had multiple cameras,” he said, recalling the highlights of his mayoral race. “Here we had to do Facebook Live. Facebook Live! Nobody came to the press conferences.”

A key question going forward is whether Mr. Villaraigosa’s collapse offered a verdict on the power of the Latino vote. But it is difficult to measure because there were no exit polls — which gives researchers valuable information on who turned out and why — and the vote tally is not complete.

“There is no question that there was a lack of turnout and a lack of enthusiasm,” Mr. Suro said. “This guy was a two-term mayor of Los Angeles running to be the first Latino mayor since the 1800s and nobody stood up to salute?”

But Matt A. Barreto, the head of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, said an early review of some vote totals — in heavily Latino districts in Orange County and Los Angeles County — suggested that those voters had turned out to a considerable extent, and voted for Latino candidates on the ballot, such as Xavier Becerra, a Democrat and the attorney general, and Alex Padilla, the secretary of state. He said that Mr. Villaraigosa had trailed behind them.

“I think it’s more a function of him being out of politics longer and Newsom being a good candidate,” Mr. Barreto said. “It was hard to attack Newsom for being bad for the Latino community. That made it difficult for Villaraigosa.”

The former mayor has spent the past few days with his family and aides, thinking, he said, more about what to do next than what went wrong. Retirement, he said, glancing around his opulent home, its walls covered with art, and a sprawling deck outside the third-floor kitchen, is not an option. “I’m going to have to get some work,” he said. “Probably business.”

Mr. Villaraigosa said he has made a point of trying not to read accounts of his loss, or pore over the data of what went wrong. But he noticed when Mayor Eric M. Garcetti, his successor at City Hall, offered criticism of his campaign, suggesting that money had been wasted and that his message had been muddled.

“I heard that he did that,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “It’s just noise. People say stuff off the cuff. If I don’t know what happened, how does anyone else know?”

Mr. Garcetti is now actively exploring a race for president. Asked if he had any advice to give back to the current mayor, the former mayor paused.

“Well after losing the election by the margin I did,” Mr. Villaraigosa said, “I think I’m humble enough to reserve any advice I have to a one-on-one conversation.”