Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, fresh off an aggressive effort to get President Barack Obama re-elected, strode into Washington this week to champion an immigration overhaul.
The issue is vitally important to California , with the nation’s largest number of illegal immigrants and whose agriculture industry relies heavily on the state’s immigrant population.
Villaraigosa hopes to use his experience in the Golden State and personal background as a farm-labor activist to influence the Obama administration’s work on overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. He does so as a rising star in the Democratic Party, having presided over the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last summer and served on a White House economic advisory board. Now – despite a recent public flap over a snapshot with Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen – he finds himself mentioned as a potential Cabinet pick.
Villaraigosa refuses to turn aside the speculation.
The mayor of the country’s second-largest city told a sold-out luncheon Monday at the National Press Club in Washington that the immigration issue strikes a “deeply personal chord.”
The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Villaraigosa described providing a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants as a moral and economic imperative. He blasted Republican proposals that include a large guest-worker program that stops short of citizenship and, he says, is a pathway to “second-class citizenship.”
“My grandfather did not believe his birth was destined,” Villaraigosa said. “He believed that where you were born shouldn’t determine where you end up. And that’s why he came to America.”
Villaraigosa, who will turn 60 next week, finishes his term as mayor this year, and speculation is high that he’s being considered for a Cabinet position or may be considering a run for governor.
He didn’t do anything to downplay the speculation this week, arriving in Washington early to hit a few political television shows, including CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. Staff said he’d been in contact with the White House to discuss immigration issues.
He’s gregarious and telegenic, but Villaraigosa also has been criticized for his management of Los Angeles.
When he was elected in 2005, Newsweek magazine put him on the cover as an example of how Hispanics will change political power. Three years later, Los Angeles magazine put him on the cover with the headline: "Failure: So much promise, so much disappointment."
He also can draw negative publicity, such as being photographed with actor Sheen, who told the gossip website TMZ that the mayor “can drink with the best of ’em.”
Sheen later issued an apology.
In his remarks Monday, Villaraigosa acknowledged Congress’ heavy workload – lawmakers expect to debate gun safety and the debt crisis in the coming months – but said politicians couldn’t afford to “punt” the immigration issue to another political cycle.
“Washington should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.
Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have suggested that immigration legislation be introduced and passed in pieces, which would make it easier to get through Congress. Rubio told The Wall Street Journal that his plan would include a permanent-residency provision, possibly leading to citizenship after some years, but he stressed that the plan was “not blanket amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship.”
Villaraigosa has served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has passed resolutions calling for comprehensive immigration legislation. He’ll give a speech on immigration later this week, when the bipartisan group meets for its winter conference in Washington.
Villaraigosa is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. A co-author of an assault-weapons ban in California, he criticized those who he says put the interests of the National Rifle Association before the safety of the American people.
“It’s an abomination that we don’t have an assault weapons ban,” he said.
Speculation has risen that Villaraigosa is being considered for secretary of transportation, but supporters such as Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, said he’d also be a good choice for secretary of commerce or labor.
“There is no question that he’s in the mix of potential individuals who are being considered for the Cabinet,” she said. “Maybe he’s here for an interview. We don’t know that, but it would be hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be a natural for one of the Cabinet positions.”
Villaraigosa acknowledges his hope to stay in public office, but he’s coy whether that may mean a run for governor or joining Obama’s Cabinet.
“I’m not riding off into the sunset just yet,” he said.
When asked if he’d been approached about a Cabinet position, he said he preferred not to talk about his future.
He then he ticked off a list of accomplishments that would look good on a resume, including lowering crime, doubling the number of successful schools and increasing charter schools.