To understand at least part of the scenario Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will need if he decides to run for governor next year, it helps to go back to 1974.
Villaraigosa, the only major Southern California figure now considering a try to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, might need a re-run of what happened that year in one down-the-ticket race if he’s to have any real chance at the governor’s office he covets.
Here’s what happened then in the contest to succeed Jerry Brown (today’s attorney general) as secretary of state, conducted while he ran successfully for governor: An eccentric assemblywoman from Oakland ran against well-known Democratic activist Cathy O’Neil of Pacific Palisades and eight-year San Gabriel Valley Assemblyman Walter Karabian for the Democratic nomination.
Prior to that election, former dental hygienist March Fong Eu was best known for smashing a toilet on the state Capitol steps as part of her successful campaign to get pay toilets outlawed in this state. She also sought to become the first Chinese-American elected to statewide office in California.
She won that nomination with less than 40 percent of the Democratic vote because her two prominent Southern California rivals essentially split that region’s votes while tallying very few in Northern California, where Eu dominated. Eu went on to defeat Republican Brian Van Camp that November by a margin of more than 20 percent. She served almost five full terms before becoming President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Micronesia in the 1990s. But if another major Northern California figure had entered that 1974 race, she likely would have lost, and her son Matt would never have become state treasurer years later, nor would he have had a shot at getting the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1998.
Now Villaraigosa, weakened by drawing just 55 percent of the vote against a less-than-stellar field of underfunded unknowns when reelected last March, faces nothing but Northern Californians in the run for governor. He’s also handicapped by the recent revelation of yet another affair with a female television reporter. This time, though, he’s separated from his wife, so the matter won’t be quite as damaging as his first affair.
Other prospective Democratic candidates include Attorney General Brown, the former Oakland mayor, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, not to mention U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the longtime San Francisco mayor who would probably force most other candidates in her party to reconsider if she decides to run. She says she probably won’t.
Another wild card is state Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell, with less money than the other significant Democrats. With his base in Santa Barbara and small likelihood of running a large-scale advertising campaign, he doesn’t figure as a major factor in this race.
Villaraigosa would have three fervent hopes if he runs in this field: One would be to sweep Latino voters while coaxing them into a large turnout. Another is that the northern candidates split the vote there as Karabian and O’Neil did Southern California in 1974 in a dramatic example of regional bloc voting. And a third (shared with Newsom) is that voters forget about sexual peccadilloes or deem them irrelevant. Newsom has also been involved in a sex scandal while in office.
There are no geographic splits among Republicans: all three major GOP candidates have strong roots in roughly the same Silicon Valley area. Republican contenders include Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who can finance as many campaigns as he cares to run after selling off his software business for hundreds of millions of dollars; former eBay chief Meg Whitman, who was not involved in public life before becoming an adviser to defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain last year, and former Congressman Tom Campbell, previously an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate and a former academic at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University.
Perhaps Campbell had something geographic in mind when he became a visiting professor this year at Orange County’s Chapman College and started writing op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times and others. But he’s still not well known in Southern California and would have no legitimate claim to regional loyalty.
Were Villaraigosa to win the Democratic nod, he would then hope for both a strong Latino vote and strong regional loyalty in the November 2010 contest against one of those current and former Silicon Valley denizens.
But that is by no means assured.