SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has decided against running for the U.S. Senate in 2016, leaving state Attorney General Kamala Harris, the only announced candidate so far, as the heavy favorite to succeed the retiring Barbara Boxer.
Villaraigosa had been cautiously exploring a run since Boxer's decision in early January to step down once her fourth term ends. Many backers believed he wouldn't be able to resist such a rare and coveted opportunity. He said he received a lot of encouragement, but in the end knew his heart and family are in California, not Washington.
"I have decided not to run for the U.S. Senate and instead continue my efforts to make California a better place to live, work and raise a family. We have come a long way, but our work is not done, and neither am I," Villaraigosa said on his Facebook page.
Many political analysts had been anticipating an expensive, rough-and-tumble contest between Villaraigosa and Harris. Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said the former mayor probably understood that Harris would be hard to defeat.
"Villaraigosa is politically savvy," Pitney said. "One of his selling points was identity politics, but it's hard to win a contest of identity politics against an opponent who is female, black and Asian."
Villaraigosa is the second top-flight candidate to announce he wouldn't run for the Senate. The first, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, offered a similar explanation about his heart being in California, not Washington, and he has since said he would focus on a gubernatorial bid in 2018.
Harris has spent the past month generating endorsements from top Democratic leaders in California and nationally, as well as from influential interest groups such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents nearly 10,000 local police officers. She is scheduled to be in Washington for a fundraiser this week and has focused on building the foundations of a strong campaign. Meanwhile, she has largely avoided taking questions from the press and talking about where she stands on various political issues that will be important as the race progresses.
"Mayor Villaraigosa and I have been friends and colleagues for many years," Harris said. "The city of Los Angeles, and our state and nation, have benefited greatly from his leadership. I know he has much more to offer. I wish him and his family all the best."
Though Harris is the prohibitive favorite, there are more than a dozen other potential contenders, and Villaraigosa's exit could open the door for a member of the House to challenge Harris. At least five representatives, including Southern California lawmakers Loretta Sanchez, Xavier Becerra and Adam Schiff, have voiced interest in the job.
Villaraigosa had a chance to become the state's first elected Hispanic senator, reprising his breakthrough when he became the first Latino to become Los Angeles mayor in more than a century.
Harris, a former San Francisco prosecutor who entered the race Jan. 13, could mark two firsts for a California senator — the state has never elected a black senator or one of Indian descent. She is the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and an Indian mother.
The potential contest had potential geographic dimensions, too, in a state with a north-south rivalry that extends from sports — think Dodgers and Giants — through politics.
Sarah Reyes, who served four years with Villaraigosa in the California Assembly and considers him a close ally, said he is more suited to serving in an executive role and she is excited that he could be considering running for governor instead of the U.S. Senate.
"I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be pounding the pavement for him right now," Reyes said. "That doesn't mean I won't be pounding the pavement for him in a little bit."
Reyes said she doesn't believe the early strength of Harris' campaign persuaded Villaraigosa to stay out of the race.
"It's not influenced by Kamala Harris. It's not influenced by other people in the race. It's influenced by what's smart for him," Reyes said.
Villaraigosa, 62, is the son of a Mexican immigrant and a high-school dropout who shed his life as a barrio tough and eventually became speaker of the California Assembly, city councilman and in 2005, mayor.
The one-time union organizer left City Hall in 2013 after two uneven terms. He can fairly claim a string of wins while running the city of nearly 4 million people, including historically low crime rates, new rail lines and a citywide move away from polluting, coal-fired power. But those gains were tempered by gripes that he started more than he finished and turned his back on potholes and other basics. An affair with a newscaster ended his marriage during his tenure.
Freking reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Mike Blood contributed to this report from Los Angeles.