Villaraigosa's private dinners, Condoleezza Rice and more politics notes

villaraigosa-dnc-grab.jpgAntonio Villaraigosa at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

For the second weekend in a row, Antonio Villaraigosa's political future has been all over the politics media at both ends of the state. Will he run for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated in 2016 by Barbara Boxer? Or will he wait for another opportunity now that Kamala Harris has broken out of the gate in the lead, and with Villaraigosa's longtime advisors now advising her? Villaraigosa is busily checking out his prospects. There hasn't been an open Senate in California in 23 years, and no one really knows all the dynamics that could play out in a statewide campaign with today's electorate. One step for Villaraigosa was to have dinner with Mayor Eric Garcetti — and reportedly with Kamala Harris too — last week. And a speculative new name in the Republican column, maybe: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

A sampling of the stories.

LA Times/Cathleen Decker: The math of California elections does not favor Villaraigosa as a Latino male candidate from Los Angeles, but conditions are likely to be better in 2016 than two years later, when the governor's office could be open and Sen. Dianne Feinstein might not run again. In 2018, Villaraigosa would be running as a 65-year-old.

The electoral arithmetic that governs California is central to decisions by a candidate like Villaraigosa. And it can be bleak…

"The worst thing you can be is a male Latino Democrat from L.A.," said Republican strategist Mike Madrid, setting aside his own party's candidates. "There is no vote base."

The best odds, added Madrid, who has studied turnout for years, go to a woman candidate from Northern California. A candidate with the profile of Sens. Dianne Feinstein or Barbara Boxer, who will be giving up, after 24 years, the seat Villaraigosa is circling. And a candidate like Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, the San Francisco Democrat who is the sole confirmed entrant in the Senate race.

Voting returns over the past decades explain why eight of the 10 current statewide officeholders are from nine counties in the north, San Francisco and its neighbors.

Christopher Cadelago/Sacramento Bee: Villaraigosa is making calls and laying some of the groundwork for a possible run, should the polls suggest he could win. Two people who didn't call back: Kamala Harris and Ace Smith, who advised on Villaraigosa's Los Angeles campaigns, but working for Harris in the 2016 Senate race.

Villaraigosa is said to be keeping long hours as he wrestles with the decision of whether to run. He’s sought the counsel of Democratic strategists Garry South and Bill Carrick, they said. If he gets in, Villaraigosa would face further scrutiny over his stewardship of the city and the extramarital affair that ended his marriage in 2007.

While he may still have his eye on the Governor’s Office, some believe Boxer’s Senate seat is his best opportunity to win statewide. Democrats, along with the ethnic and regional coalitions he will depend on, participate in much higher numbers in presidential elections.

Villaraigosa won’t have to compete with his successor, Garcetti, who would draw away votes. Garcetti is viewed as a future candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate, possibly in 2018.

Villaraigosa’s regular appearances on TV as mayor would give him a boost in the vote-rich Los Angeles media market, said Carrick, a strategist to Garcetti and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Villaraigosa also would be able to put together a statewide coalition.

“He knows the politics of this stuff well; there’s no reason why he shouldn’t run,” Carrick said. “If you have an opportunity to have a major office, I don’t think you go shopping around.”

Gene Maddaus/LA Weekly: Villaraigosa and Garcetti had dinner Thursday night to talk about the race. No deal was made, according to sources. But Garcetti presumably wants to have the 2018 field open in case he decides to run for governor or a presumed Feinstein vacancy. For his part, Garcetti said on ABC 7 over the weekend that he hopes someone from Los Angeles runs for the Boxer seat.

Garcetti and Villaraigosa are not exactly friends, but they do share common political interests. Both are from Los Angeles, with a strong base of support among Latino voters. If they ran against each other, they would split their base, which would be in neither man's interest….

From Garcetti's point of view, it might be better for Villaraigosa to run for Boxer's seat in 2016. That would likely take Villaraigosa out the picture for 2018.

Whether that's also in Villaraigosa's interest is something he's now trying to figure out. Villaraigosa is seeking input on what he could achieve as a Senator, as well as assessing the political matchup.

Harris would be a formidable opponent, and has less baggage than Newsom, who is expected to run for governor. But the longer that Villaraigosa stays out of public office, the more his credentials fade in comparison with those of his potential rivals.

"He’s looking at it really seriously, but he also understands what a tough race it will be politically and personally," said one person who spoke to Villaraigosa recently. "He has a very clear-eyed view of the challenges."

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown/SF Chronicle column: Brown, like Villaraigosa a former Speaker of the Assembly, says Harris and Villaraigosa were spotted having dinner and he thinks he knows why.

My speculation is that Villaraigosa was looking to cut a deal under which he would opt out of the Senate race and Harris would stay neutral in the 2018 governor’s campaign, which could well pit Villaraigosa against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

And speaking of the Senate race — I don’t care what she’s saying now, but don’t count out former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. My spies tell me that some very big national Republicans are convinced she can win and are going to do everything in their power — and the power of their pocketbooks — to clear the field on the GOP side and get her into the race.

CalBuzz, the site of longtime NorCal political journalists Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, proclaims Villaraigosa viable. Probably.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is, for now, the leading candidate to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, by dint of his money, is her strongest potential challenger.

But one other Democrat – despite plenty of personal and political baggage – has the potential to upend the dynamics of the race: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (formerly Tony Villar or Tony V in Calbuzz parlance).

If – and this is huge – he can find a way to scoop up fund-raising people who know how to pull together millions under federal limitations, Tony V could make it past the June top-two election and run a competitive race for Senate, especially if Steyer decides not to get in. For one thing, he’d be the only brand-name Latino in a state where that could matter.

Whether Harris will be a formidable candidate in the harsh light of a top-of-the-ticket campaign has yet to be determined. At least two unaligned top political consultants told Calbuzz she could turn out to be a paper tiger. “She’s very full of herself,” said one, “and voters might not like that about her.”

“What evidence is there that’s she a juggernaut? That she barely beat Steve Cooley?” said another, referring to her 2010 election rival. Her 2014 re-election can be dismissed as a walk-over: nobody even remembers who ran against her (hint: the Hobbit, Ron Gold). Moreover, this consultant said, not only is California “overdue to elect a Latino, but “nobody seems to have noticed that there are five million registered voters in L.A. County and 2.5 in the Bay Area.”

Another note of caution on the inevitability of Kamala Harris from Dan Morain, the Sacramento Bee editorial page editor. He sees more sizzle than substance to her Senate campaign thus far.

By the end of the first week, Harris had become the frontrunner to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring in 2016. Harris’ aides worked hard to spin an air of invincibility. Enthusiastic press coverage fed into it.

“She has been dubbed the female Obama. She cooks. She goes to the gym in a hoodie,” The Guardian of the U.K. wrote. “She views lawyers as heroes and takes on mortgage companies the way Elizabeth Warren takes on Wall Street.”

There was, however, the question of issues.

Harris, sworn in for her second term as attorney general on Jan. 5, announced her Senate candidacy on Jan. 13 in a vacuous 240-word blurb in which she asked for money, and made no other public statements.

In the plea for money, Harris promised to fight crime, fight for consumers, fight for equal rights, fight for “the next generation,” fight for “middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages,” fight “for our children,” and “fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.”

She listed many fights, but missed a few. There was no talk of fighting for the right to privacy or for national defense, or combating climate change, which many Democrats see as the defining issue of our time. Water policy evidently was not snappy enough.

More politics notes:

  • Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate change activist weighing a run for U.S. Senate, is telling potential supporters he would commit to serving only one term if he can’t reach goals dealing with the environment, economy and education within six years. Bee
  • Steyer is outlining a policy agenda focused on climate change, education and tax reform and pledging to serve only one term if he cannot achieve his goals. LAT
  • California’s top-two primary is likely to get its first top-of-the-ticket test in the June 2016 Senate race, and the prospect has both Democrats and Republicans nervously playing out very different scenarios. SF Chronicle

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