One day last month, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was walking out of the state capitol in Sacramento when a man yelled "Go back to Mexico." For one of the most prominent Latino politicians in the country, the incident was an unwelcome encounter with bigotry but not one that bothered him.
"I laughed it off – and I did because it's not the first time I've heard something like that," Villaraigosa said in an interview one recent afternoon at his City Hall offices. "But I also laughed it off because, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I believe in this great generous opportunity [that is] America. It's given me a shot."
Despite the barb directed at Villaraigosa in Sacramento, the mayor is not from Mexico – his grandfather came to this country in 1903. Villaraigosa is, however, the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century, overseeing the nation's second-largest city, one with a large, growing population of Mexican-Americans. Now, as he enters his final year in office, the national spotlight awaits.
Earlier this year Villaraigosa was tapped to be chairman of the Democratic National Convention in August, which he called "an honor." A key part of that role will be to help make President Obama make his case to Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc, one that backed Obama by a two-thirds margin in 2008.
"I expect that the president is going to get an even higher percentage in 2012," Villaraigosa predicted. "We're not taking anybody for granted, but I think there are prospects of getting an overwhelming vote among Latinos for the president."
Recent polls indicate that Villaraigosa could be right. A late January poll conducted by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision found that 67 percent of Latinos would back Obama in a matchup against Republican Mitt Romney, who received only 25 percent of their support. In addition, 41 percent of Latinos nationwide said they had a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable view of Romney. Overall, a whopping 72 percent of Latinos said the Republican primary had given them the impression that the GOP candidates either didn't care too much about Latinos or were outright hostile toward them. It isn't hard to see why. Herman Cain joked that he would build an electric fence along the Mexican border. Romney touted the endorsement of anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona's controversial law that required immigrants to carry their registration documents at all times and police to question them if there was reason to suspect that they were in the country illegally. Romney called the strict new measure "a model."
"I think in that primary we heard things that surprised the vast majority of us and were offensive to many of us," Villaraigosa said, noting that "in the last 40 years, I haven't heard rhetoric like that."
"I think leaders should be very careful about that kind of divisive rhetoric, so I do take umbrage with it. I do find it offensive. I do think it doesn't add to the debate," he said. "People can have positions on these issues that are diametrically different. I don't think we have to divide people in that way and so while personally that one person [in Sacramento] saying something to me didn't affect me in any way – I knew he was ignorant – I do find that I think political leaders have a higher standard, and they shouldn't be engaging in that type of rhetoric."