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Interview with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa


Our Weekly Editor Stanley O. Williford sat down recently with Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa at Getty House, the mayor’s mansion, to get an assessment of the Latino voting population’s feel for President Barack Obama. Villaraigosa is national co-chair of the re-election committee, chairman of the Democratic Party Convention and outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. As we look toward Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), it is interesting to note that Latinos, with a U.S. population of 52 million people, are the nation’s largest ethnic minority and, therefore, make up an enormous voting bloc.

QUESTION: How is the campaign process going as compared to last time?
ANSWER: Once you’ve been in office for four years, particularly in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression there’s not going to be the same amount of excitement that there was in the first time. So there’s certainly a difference there in terms of the size of the crowds and the like.
But I would submit to you that this election is even more important than the first, and it is because the recession and the downward spiral of our nation’s economy has everything to do with the politics of the Bush administration.
President Obama won in no small part because the people knew that. This election is so important because Gov. Romney wants to return us to the policies that brought us here in the first place, notwithstanding the fact that we’ve had 28 straight months of growth in the economy, albeit slow growth. We’ve had it because the president has been focused on job creation and on investing in the middle class. If we go back to the policies of Romney–Gov. Romney–and Bush we’re going to take this economy backward again and not forward.
Let me explain that: Gov. Romney is proposing a tax cut of $5 trillion at a time of a $14.5-trillion deficit! We can’t afford a tax cut like that, and his tax cut disproportionately advantages the wealthiest. He says he’ll pay for it by cutting Social Security, Medicare and supporting the Ryan budget [Republican Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin], which would eviscerate the safety net–education, transportation, etc.–at a level that is just too destructive and too damaging to people who work and to the middle class.
The choices are stark; we’ve got our work cut out for us. The country is evenly divided. We’ve got to get out our base–African Americans, Latinos, people who work every day for a living, the middle class, women–those are the folks that would disproportionately benefit the most from President Obama’s policies and be the most negatively impacted by Gov. Romney’s.

Q: What issues are most important to the Latino voter right now?
A: You know, I’ve heard, for instance, the African American community will say the same thing I’m going to [say] about the Latino community. People ask me what is the Latino agenda. I say it’s the American agenda, just like the Black agenda is the American agenda. We want to participate in the American Dream. We want to work hard (and) be rewarded for our work. We want to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin or our actions, or our race, or sex orientation. We want to be able to get a job, support our families, work hard and want our kids to have a better life.
That’s what we want. We want to . . . send our kids to good schools and we want them to have a better life than we did. So in the last election, Latinos, I believe supported the president close to 70 percent, and I expect that that number will be even greater this time around. My expectation is it will be somewhere upwards of 70 percent, maybe 71, maybe 72. And I think it will, because they want a leader that’s going to fight for working people and the middle class. They know that the president understands that what makes America great is that it’s a place of opportunity.
I think there’s a little more [enthusiasm] right now. Maybe early on, not as much, but I think since he decided to issue an executive order allowing some of the dreamer [Dream Act] kids–kids who were raised here and lived here their whole life and have known no other country a stay from deportation–I think that’s really energized the community. They truly helped him.
By contrast, Mitt Romney is the most extreme candidate on immigration in a generation. He favors the self-deportation of 11 million people. He called the Dream Act a handout and considers the Arizona law a model for the nation.

Q: How is the president’s record so far on other issues affecting the community?
A: Well, look. Let’s look back. One of the most important legislative achievements of the president is the Affordable Care Act, and the Republicans disparagingly call it Obamacare. The president said, ‘you know they call it Obamacare, and they’re right.’ I supported this because Obama cares about the people–the 50 million people that didn’t have health insurance, and the 32 million who get healthcare as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Nine million of them are Latinos, roughly 7 or 8 million are African American. The people who are going to be helped the most by the Affordable Health Care Act are the working poor–African Americans and Latinos.
When the president supported expanding Pell grants and loans for kids of the working and middle classes to go to college, disproportionately supported were Latinos and African Americans. I think there were 150,000 Latino students and upwards of 250,000 African American students [who are supported], because when the president stands up for tax cuts for middle-class people, the people [heavily] and impacted and affected by that are us. We don’t have a lot of people in the 1 percent. We’re people that work hard and they want that hard work to be rewarded. We’ve got people who struggle and make ends meet. The work that he’s done around foreclosures, holding banks responsible for the foreclosure crisis, standing up to the notion that these people ought to get some justice and compensation–[many of] those people are minorities.

Q: What plans are in place to gain more Latino support?
A: I keynoted the Nevada Democratic Party Convention, the New Mexico Democratic Party Convention and the Florida State Democratic Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Miami. I did all those because those are swing states that have large Latino populations.
I don’t just speak to Latinos; I speak to African Americans, Whites, gays, and union members, environmentalists and evangelicals who support the president. So I speak to a broad cross section, but obviously they take advantage of the fact that I’m Spanish-speaking. I speak the Spanish language at TV and radio stations in all those states, and do what I can to make it very clear to Latino and others voters that the choices are clear, that the president’s policies are policies that will take us on a path forward, and that Gov. Romney wants to take us back.
You see that across the board. You see that on immigration, when he [Romney] calls for the deportation of 11 million people. Five million of their kids are citizens. You see it when he’s talking about civil rights and human rights issues–issue after issue there is a big chasm between the president and Gov. Romney.
Gov. Romney is saying to us that we should elect him, not because he was a governor. He doesn’t want to talk about his governor record. He said he was a job-creator when he was in business. They fact-checked his claim that there were 100,000 jobs generated and they said no you didn’t.
We know he made a lot of money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In America, we all believe in the creation of wealth and prosperity, but just making a lot of money, loading up companies with debt, firing workers and outsourcing their jobs isn’t my idea of something that qualifies you to be president of the United States.
That’s the difference between the president and Gov. Romney. The governor’s policies are a carbon copy of President Bush’s. President Obama’s policies are focused on strengthening the middle class, investing in their kids’ education, rebuilding our infrastructure so America can stay strong and get strong again.

Q: What are Latino’s major concerns with the president?
A: You know, Latinos aren’t a monolithic community. There are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Central Americans, South Americans–not all of them are Democrats. Some are Republicans. More of the Cubans are Republicans and more of the Mexican and Puerto Ricans and Central Americans are Democrats, but we also have some Republicans. What I would say is the vast majority of Latinos are supporting the president, because they know that his policies have a disproportionately positive impact on their communities.
President Obama will do well with Latino families because the president is fighting to grow the economy from the middle out and not the top down.
Are there concerns? There are concerns with every elected official, particularly in an economic crisis. But mostly there’s overwhelming support.

Q: What percentage voted Republican in the last election?
A: About 30 percent. Maybe it was 31 or 32 percent. Gov. Romney has gone even further to the right than President Bush.

Q: Do you think that’s his natural position, or the effect of the Tea Party’s influence?
A: It’s hard to tell what his natural position is, because he’s changed it so many times. And he was for Romneycare before he was against it; he said it was not a tax when he passed it. Now he says it is. He supported immigration reform before he was opposed to it. He has said previously he was for civil unions. Now he’s against [them]. He was for women’s right to choose before he was against it. He was for contraception being provided by health insurance for women before he was against it. He’s gone so far to the right that, you know ….

Q: Where is the president most vulnerable? In what area?
A: I would say with Cuban Americans probably. Particularly among older Cuban Americans he has some work to do. He’s strongest among young people, of all races and in the cities.
It’s going to be a very tight race. People in the cities, people on the coasts, minorities, women tend to support the president in higher numbers. People in the South and Midwest don’t have the same level of support or affection for the president. Twelve swing states. We’re going to work hard in all of them. No question that Latinos will be a key vote in those states, but we’re going to work to get out everybody’s vote. That’s the nature of elections–you get your supporters out. There are a lot of folks who will be knocking on doors, calling voters and really helping us do that.
Q: What is the best appeal the president can make to the Latino community?
A: I think the president’s case for reelection to Latinos and all Americans will be that he wants to move America forward by rewarding work, creating more opportunity and making sure that in these tough times all of us shoulder the burden of moving us forward. The difference between the president and Gov. Romney is that President Obama believes in an opportunity in America, that working and middle-income people get the same shot at the creation of wealth that people of privilege have, by investing in their kids’ education, by providing the safety net for people in time of need, by rewarding work, and celebrating the breadth of talent we have in this community.

Q: How often do you meet with the president, and how long do those sessions usually take?
A: Not often, but I’ve met with him. Last year I met with him five times.