Why did Democrats choose Antonio Villaraigosa to lead national convention?

Antonio Villaraigosa has built an impressive résumé in the California Assembly and as mayor of Los Angeles. As chair of the Democratic National Convention, he could help woo Latinos. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
First lady Michelle Obama talks with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during an event held to showcase efforts being made to draw grocers to low-income neighborhoods in Inglewood, Calif., earlier this month.

The appointment of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to be chairman of this summer’s Democratic National Convention points to a political career on a potentially upward arc, with some analysts suggesting that a cabinet position could loom in President Obama's second term.

For Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party, the benefits could be more immediate. As essentially the emcee of the three-day September convention in Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Villaraigosa will provide instant outreach to Hispanics, who could be crucial in the general election. Moreover, his contacts in the business community are expected to be a boon to Democratic money-raising efforts.

“His appointment is a coup for the Democratic Party,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.  “He will attract Hispanic voters but also a lot of money by virtue of his relationship to business both in Los Angeles and internationally.”

Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872, and has amassed a résumé that includes speaker of the California Assembly – the first from L.A. in 25 years – and head of the US Conference of Mayors.

He was born in East Los Angeles to a Mexican-immigrant father and California-born mother of Mexican descent. Raised by a single mom from age 5, Villaraigosa participated in the first grape boycott led by César Chávez, graduated from night school, went to law school, and became a prominent labor organizer.

“One of Obama’s biggest challenges is that he needs a way to motivate his base, and one of his biggest challenges there is with Latino voters,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “There’s no danger of them switching their loyalties and going with the GOP in November, but Obama needs to get them to the polls."

"Even though this appointment is largely symbolic, that certainly helps in California and all the swing states that Obama needs such as Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, and Florida,” he adds.

Professor Schnur and others say Villaraigosa has largely recovered from a 2007 affair with a Spanish-language television newswoman, which prompted his wife to file for divorce for the second and last time. He has mentioned his interest in the US Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, and the governorship now held by Jerry Brown – both Democrats.

Several analysts have speculated that President Obama, if reelected, might look to Villaraigosa for a cabinet appointment.

“With Brown likely to run again, this gives Antonio four more years to look for something that could put him on the national stage without having to forfeit any key state office he really wants,” says Schnur. “This DNC appointment is certainly a nice way of earning stripes as a loyal team player for a cabinet appointment.”

Beyond the symbolism of having a Latino in the DNC chair, Villaraigosa can have a hand in helping to shape aspects of the convention, other analysts say.

“Since we already know who the candidate is going to be, that leaves more space for someone to really guide the other activity of this convention,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. No. 1 on that list is immigration reform, he says.

“We wish we had someone of Antonio’s stature on the GOP side,” he says.

Mr. Vargas says Villaraigosa is known for “reaching successfully across the aisle” and following through on political promises.  

“He laid out a priority of cutting crime and reforming the police and he has done that,” says Vargas. “He has also addressed the issues of traffic and public transportation … this is very important for Los Angelenos,” he says. “And he has strengthened the mayor’s role in making education a priority.”

In the final analysis, says political scientist Matthew Hale, the chairmanship means less as an actual position of power than it does as a way for Villaraigosa to continue his way up the political ladder.  

“The importance to this seems to me not that the chair of the convention does much,” says Professor Hale of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in an e-mail. “It is just that Villaraigosa will have lots of opportunities to get his friends and donors key spots and perks at the convention. Those favors could matter in the long run.”

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