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Central Valley figures large in Villaraigosa’s campaign for governor

Former Los Angeles mayor and state Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa spent Wednesday in Fresno to build support for his Democratic campaign for governor.
Former Los Angeles mayor and state Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa spent Wednesday in Fresno to build support for his Democratic campaign for governor. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

Antonio Villaraigosa, former state Assembly speaker and Los Angeles mayor, is working Fresno and the Valley hard now as a Democratic candidate for governor in next year’s elections.

While Democrats have dominated the California Legislature for most of the last 50 years – including when Villaraigosa was the Assembly speaker from 1998 to 2000 – Republicans have certainly had their success winning the top job since Ronald Reagan was governor from 1967 to 1975, including George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Villaraigosa’s visit to Fresno on Wednesday was shoehorned between stops Tuesday in Bakersfield and San Francisco and travel to San Diego on Thursday. He began his day at a breakfast meeting of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce – where he was introduced by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, a Republican – then got his shoes dusty with a tour of high-speed rail construction sites at the San Joaquin River and at the south end of Fresno, before meeting with law enforcement representatives in the afternoon.

Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running for California governor, discusses how the state should handle immigration under President Donald Trump.

But Villaraigosa, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013, is just one of a bumper crop of Democrats and Republicans hoping to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown. Among the other Democrats: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin. GOP candidates include state Assemblyman Travis Allen of San Diego and San Diego businessman John Cox.

Even before officially declaring his candidacy for governor last November, Villaraigosa said, he held what he called a “listening tour” of 51 days around the state over an 18-month period, “and 26 of those days were in the Valley.” Since becoming a formal candidate, he’s been back to the region “again and again and again.”

You’ll see me here (in the Valley), maybe more than you want to. Sometimes you’ll be happy with me, and sometimes you’ll be screaming at me, but I’ll show up.

Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic candidate for governor

“Over time I came to really understand that if we are going to grow our economy in a way where we are growing together, if we are going to address the fact that we’re leaving too many people behind, we’re going to have to invest in the Central Valley,” he told The Bee on Wednesday. “Why is there no Valley representation on the (University of California) Board of Regents? Only one UC campus?  The Valley needs diverse representation on the Board of Regents, on the (California State University) trustees, on the state Community College board, on the state Transportation Commission.”

Villaraigosa also restated his backing of the state’s controversial high-speed rail project – an ambitious $64 billion plan to link San Francisco and Los Angeles with electric trains traveling at up to 220 mph, by way of Fresno and the Valley. He noted the jobs directly related to high-speed rail construction in Fresno and Madera counties and indirect jobs generated by the project.

“This is an engine for economic development that connects the two economic powerhouses in the north and the south with the one place in the state where we have affordable housing,” he said. “A great state is one where we’re all growing together. That means we have to invest in a greater degree to educate and train our kids for jobs in the 21st century, and we have to build the infrastructure we need.”

For Villaraigosa, the Valley is an opportunity to make inroads in a region that often votes Republican – and overcome local skepticism over candidates from a part of the state that is often viewed as overlooking, if not neglecting, Fresno and the Valley. (Think about when Kevin De Leon, the current president pro tem of the state Senate, described the Valley as “the middle of nowhere” and declared to a Los Angeles Times columnist that “no one lives out there in the tumbleweeds”).

“It’s not just about winning the election, but it certainly helps,” Villaraigosa said Wednesday. “You can’t knock on someone’s door and then not open yours when you get elected.  You’ll see me here, maybe more than you want to. Sometimes you’ll be happy with me, and sometimes you’ll be screaming at me, but I’ll show up.”

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