When Antonio Villaraigosa said this summer that he would like someday to be governor of California, he acknowledged an ambition that appeared until recently to have slipped beyond his reach.
The mayor of Los Angeles, beleaguered by the weak economy, an extramarital affair and a series of shortcomings at City Hall, was re-elected by an underwhelming margin in 2009.
Los Angeles magazine put a photograph of him on its cover behind the headline, "Failure: So much promise, so much disappointment," and Villaraigosa sat out the gubernatorial race the following year.
In recent months, however, the former Assembly speaker has regained some of his old swagger. In Charlotte, N.C., this week to gavel in the Democratic National Convention as its chairman, Villaraigosa is now considered a potential candidate for an appointment in a second Obama administration.
He also has rejoined Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris at the top of a list of Democrats considered likely contenders for governor or U.S. Senate.
"It would have been really easy to write him off a couple of years ago," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "But now you'd have to consider him as one of the next generation of potential leaders of California."
When he was first elected mayor, Villaraigosa was heralded as a leading indicator of the rising prominence of Latino politicians in an increasingly diverse state. His re-emergence began in earnest last year.
He raised his profile nationally as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, using the position to lobby for passage of a federal transportation bill containing a low-interest loan program for billions of dollars in public transportation projects, including in Los Angeles.
He was named convention chairman in February, and has appeared in front of Democratic groups throughout the country and on national television in the months since.
Villaraigosa, 59, said in an interview that he is not contemplating an immediate run for office. When asked if he might challenge Gov. Jerry Brown if Brown runs for re-election in 2014, Villaraigosa said, "No, I don't see any chance of that."
He said he might affiliate with a think tank or university when he terms out as mayor next year.
"I think there's time for a little time out," Villaraigosa said.
How credible a candidate Villaraigosa would be if Brown does not run in 2014 -- or later, if he does -- is unclear. No Los Angeles mayor has ever been elected governor, and Villaraigosa's reduction of city employees and his unsuccessful effort to assume substantial control of Los Angeles city schools has alienated labor interests traditionally critical to a Democratic candidate's success.
Earlier this year, the local Service Employees International Union circulated fliers comparing Villaraigosa to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, labor's bugbear, and the union criticized him viciously for his trips out of state on behalf of Obama's re-election campaign.
"We know you are busy flying all over the country planning your big convention party and auditioning for your next job," the union said in a postcard addressed to the mayor. "But Los Angeles residents need you now. Our services have been cut to the bone. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We need you to do the job we elected you to do, which is manage the city. Here in Los Angeles. So please, come back to L.A. and do your job."
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