U.S. News

Los Angeles re-elects Hispanic mayor

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the nation’s leading Hispanic politicians, claimed a re-election victory on Tuesday, capping a low-key race widely seen as a prelude to an eventual run for governor.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (bottom) addresses people attending his inauguration ceremony as former vice president Al Gore (top) and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan (L) applaud in Los Angeles July 1, 2005. Villaraigosa is the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872. REUTERS/Jim Ruymen JR/VP

Villaraigosa’s subdued bid for a second term contrasted sharply with hoopla that accompanied his resounding victory four years ago over an embattled predecessor for leadership of America’s second-largest city, where about half the residents are Latino.

The 56-year-old Democrat, a high school dropout, onetime labor activist and son of a Mexican immigrant, faced nine challengers in Tuesday’s nonpartisan municipal election.

Early returns showed him with 57 percent of the vote, far ahead of the 22 percent garnered by his nearest rival and comfortably beyond the 50-percent-plus-one majority needed to avoid a runoff race in May with the next-highest vote getter.

Villaraigosa, who lobbied on behalf of Los Angeles and other cities for a share of the economic stimulus package recently passed by Congress, said in his victory speech that help was on the way for recession-weary constituents.

“I have a simple message tonight for Los Angeles,” he told supporters at a downtown hotel. “We’re going to rebuild from this economic crisis and we will emerge stronger than ever.”

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the election is whether Villaraigosa, widely assumed to harbor greater political ambitions, might run for governor next year to succeed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who must step down due to term limits. A bid for the U.S. Senate also is seen as a possibility.

The mayoral campaign lacked the excitement surrounding Villaraigosa’s 2005 victory that made him the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872, a national political figure and a rising star in the Democratic Party.

But Villaraigosa lost some of his luster in 2007 after an extramarital affair with a Spanish-language television reporter was revealed.

He was an early and influential backer of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in her failed campaign against Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, but still landed a spot on Obama’s transition team after the Illinois senator won the White House.

Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, said the higher political aspirations of the mayor, a former California Assembly speaker, should be seen as a plus for Los Angeles, especially in the city’s relations with state lawmakers in Sacramento.

“As long as legislators believe that Antonio Villaraigosa might go back up as governor, they have to listen to him, they have to give him access,” Guerra said. “It is a very important lobbying and advocacy position for people to think that the mayor of Los Angeles may be a candidate for governor.”

Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott