Behaving very much like a candidate for governor without saying he is one, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa moved around Mi Pueblo Market on Crows Landing Road Saturday afternoon during a leg of what he calls a "listening and learning tour."
Although the 62-year-old Southern California Democrat has rarely visited Stanislaus County, Villaraigosa moved around the market and was warmly greeted like an old friend by the mostly Latino customer base and employee team. Earlier in the morning Villaraigosa toured the Resendiz Farms during a private stop in Hughson.
"This is our next governor of California - I can feel it," announced Modesto City Councilman Tony Madrigal over the loud speaker set up in the bakery section of the store.
"He is feeling the waters," said Maggie Mejia, president of the Latino Community Roundtable in Stanislaus County, who helped organize the event. "Who knows, maybe he'll go for the Senate now that (Congresswoman) Loretta Sanchez has thrown her hat in the ring."
Villaraigosa, the former state Assembly speaker who served as L.A. mayor from 2005 to 2013, has been mentioned as either a possible contender for Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat or the governor's office when Jerry Brown in 2018 must step down due to term limitations.
"I'm on a listening tour," said Villaraigosa when asked if he is running for governor. "Believe me, I've heard a lot about water."
California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom has signaled that he wants to succeed Brown as governor.
When asked what he would do about the water crisis in California, Villaraigosa said he would support more storage facilities.
"It's become crystal clear to all of us that the challenge we face, not just for the Valley but with the growing population and not enough water, it's a complicated and complex one, it's one that's going to require all of the stakeholders to come together," said Villaraigosa. "You mention north and south. We're actually one California. We're not north, south, central. We're one state that ought to be thinking about how we resolve this issue, not just during this drought but in the long term. We've got to look at the issue of storage, the issue of conveyance, the issue of conservation, water recycling ... everything should be on the table."
His recent tour included stops in Merced, Modesto, Fresno, Turlock and Caruthers. Villaraigosa said he spent time last month with about 20 farmers in Fresno and met with business leaders there.
"I've been in processing plants and listened to people's concerns and obviously the issue of water is right at the top, and so is education and diversifying the economy and making investments in infrastructure and creating jobs."
Villaraigosa has received widespread support from the growing Latino voter base in California but is not without his political ghosts. In 2007 he was investigated for receiving Lakers tickets worth tens of thousands of dollars without reporting the gifts. He was also accused as mayor of giving high-paying jobs to family members. An extramarital affair with a TV reporter contributed to the end of his marriage in 2007 and he drew fire for his handling of the 2012 Democratic National Convention because references to God and God-given rights as well as lack of language affirming the role of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were removed from the platform.
Villaraigosa is supportive of the controversial high-speed rail and suggested that California's tax system needs to be fixed, including a reform of the landmark property tax capping Proposition 13.
Since leaving the office of mayor in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa has snagged a bunch of high paying consulting contracts with Herbalife and Banc of California. He recently purchased a home in Hollywood Hills for $2.5 million, and collects an annual city pension of $97,832.