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Villaraigosa bows out of California governor's race [Updated]

June 22, 2009 |  1:20 pm

Post updated at 3:13 p.m.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced on national television today that he would not be running for California governor in 2010 after flirting with a bid for higher office for months.

“I can’t leave this city in the middle of a crisis," Villaraigosa said. Noting that Los Angeles is grappling with a $530-million deficit, a 12.5% unemployment rate and more than 20,000 people who have lost their homes over the last two years, the mayor said: “I feel compelled to complete what I started out to do.”

Elected to a second, four-year term in March, the mayor broke the news to CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room," saying he wanted to devote his full attention to Los Angeles.

The former state assembly speaker said he had been making up his mind “for a long time” and that the state's challenges had made the decision an "agonizing” one.  Villaraigosa called the situation in Sacramento “an abomination,” but hinted at the political risks of announcing a statewide run so soon after being reelected to a second term. “I was elected mayor and reelected by the people of this city.They’ve given me the honor for a second term, and I feel compelled to complete the promise that I made to them. I’m going to dream, and I want the people to dream with me,” he said.

Villaraigosa’s decision adds a dash of clarity to the race for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination which, at the moment, appears will be between state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Brown has yet to say if he will run, while Newsom already has announced his candidacy.

In a personal note, Villaraigosa said the demands of the campaign trail would have kept him apart from his 16-year-old daughter, whom he called the “apple of my eye.” “She’s got two more years of high school and then she’s gone, and I don’t want to be campaigning for a year, and then leading the state in Sacramento and my little precious is, you know, finishing up her high school education.”

In a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, voters citywide gave Villaraigosa a lukewarm approval rating, and a plurality opposed his entrance into the governor’s race. Villaraigosa received a favorable job approval rating from 55% of those surveyed, statistically equivalent to the vote he won in the city’s March election against a field of little-known and underfunded candidates.

In his comments to Blitzer, Villaraigosa shrugged off questions about the poll, as well as the recent cover of Los Angeles Magazine, which branded him a “failure”: “That’s what happens when you’re mayor, you’re the focus of the good times and the bad,” Villaraigosa said smiling. "In a time when the unemployment rate is at 12.5%, a 55% approval isn’t so bad, but I recognize that I’ve got a lot of work to do …and I’ve got to do a better job, even, than the job we’ve done over the last four years.”

Starting in July, the mayor and City Council agreed to lay off 1,200 city workers and furlough those who remain to help close a $530-million deficit for 2009-2010. City officials continue to negotiate with city unions for alternatives, but no deals have been announced.

Given the city’s precarious financial situation, and with Villaraigosa set to be sworn into a new term on July 1, announcing a run for governor could have created a sticky political situation for the 56-year-old mayor.

IPlus, winning the California governor’s race has proven to be an elusive quest for big-city mayors.

Several Los Angeles mayors, including Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan and Sam Yorty, all tried, and lost, along with San Francisco’s Joseph Alioto. Pete Wilson, the former mayor of San Diego, lost once and became a U.S. senator before trying again and claiming victory over former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who went on to become a U.S. senator.

The latest statewide Field Poll in March found that without Feinstein in the 2010 governor’s race, Brown was the top Democratic contender with 25%, followed by Villaraigosa with 22% and Newsom with 16%. Villaraigosa declined today to endorse another candidate for the Democratic nomination.

-- Phil Willon and Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall