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."
In particular, Democrats are now poised to highlight Romney's comments in the primary on the immigration issue. The former Massachusetts governor – and all-but-certain GOP nominee – vowed to veto the Dream Act, the Democrats' measure to provide a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military; outlined an immigration policy based on the notion of "self-deportation"; and, when pressed about the fact that a lawn-care company he once used had employed undocumented immigrants, noted that he told the company, "I'm running for office for Pete's sake – I can't have illegals."
"I don't think that Mitt Romney has any credibility on this issue. I just don't," Villaraigosa said. "Not when you argue for the self-deportation of 11 million people. Not when you think that the Dream Act is a handout. Not when you didn't say a word in the course of those debates some of the most anti-immigrant and racially offensive and ethnically offensive statements were made. Never once did he say, 'I take umbrage with that.'"
In 2008, Latinos cast 6.6 million votes and, breaking so heavily for Obama, paved the way for the Illinois Democrat's resounding win. Generally speaking, Latinos are liberals, tending to disagree with Republicans on key issues such as immigration reform and the government's role in improving the economy. For the president, Latino turnout could be the difference between winning and losing the White House. Recent projections put the number of Latino voters in November between 10.5 million and 12.2 million, but Villaraigosa believes Republicans will take steps to keep that number down.
"We're going to have to work hard to talk to Latino voters to really make the case to really work hard, to get them out to vote at a time when the other side may be discouraging them from voting," he said. "You know, over the last couple of years we've seen in states across the country they're making it more difficult to vote. The number of states who've passed laws requiring voter IDs with the purported goal of making our elections more secure, but with the effect of limiting and undermining the vote among the poor, elderly voters and communities of color."
"I think we've seen that in the past and I expect that we'll see it again. There'll be an attempt to depress the vote – no question about it."
Another potential roadblock for Democrats is Romney's running mate selection. One of the names cited most often as a possible choice on the Romney ticket is Sen. Marco Rubio, the freshman Republican from Florida. The Latino Decisions poll in January revealed that 60 percent of Latino Republicans in Florida would be much more likely to vote Republican in November if Rubio is added to the GOP ticket, potentially giving Romney a sizable boost in a key battleground state. However, Villaraigosa doesn't sound concerned.
"Almost no election that I can remember was decided on who the vice presidential candidate was or who the running mate was. It's usually decided by the top of the ticket," he said. "I think it may give him a small bump in some places, but I think ultimately they're going to have to talk about what they've done and what they're going to do to get elected. Simple as that."
One of the things that Obama talked about doing if elected, though, was passing comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, the president focused on health care reform during his first two years in office, a time when both houses of Congress were in Democratic hands. Immigration reform stalled. Even the Dream Act came up short in the Senate, blocked by Republicans but also by five Democrats.
"I've had people very upset with me even though I don't have a vote in the Congress and I've been on this issue for a very very long time. So yes, these are things that we'll have to overcome," Villaraigosa acknowledged. "I think there's a big difference between these two parties when it comes to this issue, and I think that's why you see the chasm growing in terms of Latino support for the president."
Another area of discontent with the president among those in his own party is his stance on same-sex marriage. Villaraigosa recently went so far as to say that Democrats should take a stand on the issue because it is "basic to who we are," despite Obama not supporting same-sex marriage.
"I think marriage equality should be part of our platform," the mayor said. "I also respect the process. And the process is that our party has to come together around that issue, and they very well may do that."
Villaraigosa, it seems, clearly feels a bond with Obama, drawing parallels between him and the president on several occasions during the interview. Both men broke through racial barricades, stormed into office with sky-high expectations but later encountered obstacles because of the nation's economic downturn. Elected in 2005 amid a fervor about the so-called "Pop Star Mayor," Villaraigosa soon ran into trouble. He admitted to an extramarital affair with a reporter. He oversaw a city hurt by the recession. He faced criticism for supposedly caring more about the glitz of the job than the daily grind. He was fined more than $40,000 for accepting free tickets to basketball games and concerts. Even this year, when Villaraigosa was given the convention gig, a group of L.A. city workers said on Twitter, "Let's hope Mayor Fail doesn't advance politically."
"I'm so tired of the cynicism of the folks who just spent their time, you know, throwing rocks at the man in the arena as President Roosevelt once said. You know, I want to focus on my job and that's what I'm going to do," Villaraigosa said. "Ultimately, you know, people will assess your time in public service. I hope they'll assess it positively, but I'm not in control of that. I've just got to focus on my job and realize that the chattering classes are going to do and say what they want, and you've just got to focus on the task at hand."
Looking back at his time in office, Villaraigosa said "without question" the breakup of his family was the hardest part of his tenure.
"You're not just an elected person, but a father as well, a family person. That probably was the low point. Not probably – it was."
While Villaraigosa has experienced some devastating lows during his time at City Hall, he has also enjoyed a string of accomplishments. He has taken steps to make Los Angeles the safest it has been since the 1950s. He persuaded L.A. County voters to raise the sales tax on themselves, money that was then used to create jobs. He has overseen the construction of new light rail systems – later this month a new line will start running from downtown to West L.A.; by summer, it will run to Culver City; by 2015, to Santa Monica. He was named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He has received praise for his work promoting America Fast Forward – a transportation financing program backed by 188 mayors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.
Michael Kelly, the executive director of the L.A. Coalition for the Economy and Jobs, said Villaraigosa has "done a great job of promoting Los Angeles as a global city that must compete against the world's top metropolitan regions in order to grow its economy and create quality jobs."
"In the end, you know, you've got to be able to look at the man in the mirror, the person in the mirror if you will," Villaraigosa said. "And I feel fairly good about the progress we've made."
When asked about his greatest accomplishment as mayor, Villaraigosa launched into a rambling four-minute answer, rattling off what he sees as his greatest hits. Initially he cautions, "I can't say 'I've done this' – in fact, whenever my staff puts the 'I' word I like to put 'we' and change the pronoun." But seconds later, he says, "I run 22 schools, about 18,000 kids – I've taken on the toughest schools in the city."
At one point he appears to become emotional when recalling the time he met Nelson Mandela and the speech he gave at Rosa Parks' funeral in 2005.
"There have been a number of times when I just wanted to pinch my cheek and say, 'God, I'm so lucky that I'm mayor of this city that my grandpa came to 100 years ago.'"
When his tenure at City Hall ends next year, Villaraigosa said he plans to "take a time out and reflect on public service, probably speak and write, and maybe work in academia as well." But he warned, "I'm not finished yet." Whether it is his final year as mayor or his role fighting for Obama's re-election this fall, Villaraigosa is most certainly not finished – whether or not he will finish strong remains to be seen.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.