WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, fresh off an aggressive effort to get President Barack Obama re-elected, strode into Washington this week to champion an immigration overhaul.
The issue is vitally important to California , with the nations largest number of illegal immigrants and whose agriculture industry relies heavily on the states immigrant population.
Villaraigosa hopes to use his experience in the Golden State and personal background as a farm-labor activist to influence the Obama administrations work on overhauling the nations immigration laws. He does so as a rising star in the Democratic Party, having presided over the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last summer and served on a White House economic advisory board. Now despite a recent public flap over a snapshot with Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen he finds himself mentioned as a potential Cabinet pick.
Villaraigosa refuses to turn aside the speculation.
The mayor of the countrys second-largest city told a sold-out luncheon Monday at the National Press Club in Washington that the immigration issue strikes a deeply personal chord.
The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Villaraigosa described providing a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants as a moral and economic imperative. He blasted Republican proposals that include a large guest-worker program that stops short of citizenship and, he says, is a pathway to second-class citizenship.
My grandfather did not believe his birth was destined, Villaraigosa said. He believed that where you were born shouldnt determine where you end up. And thats why he came to America.
Villaraigosa, who will turn 60 next week, finishes his term as mayor this year, and speculation is high that hes being considered for a Cabinet position or may be considering a run for governor.
He didnt do anything to downplay the speculation this week, arriving in Washington early to hit a few political television shows, including CBSs Face the Nation on Sunday. Staff said hed been in contact with the White House to discuss immigration issues.
Hes gregarious and telegenic, but Villaraigosa also has been criticized for his management of Los Angeles.
When he was elected in 2005, Newsweek magazine put him on the cover as an example of how Hispanics will change political power. Three years later, Los Angeles magazine put him on the cover with the headline: "Failure: So much promise, so much disappointment."
He also can draw negative publicity, such as being photographed with actor Sheen, who told the gossip website TMZ that the mayor can drink with the best of em.
Sheen later issued an apology.
In his remarks Monday, Villaraigosa acknowledged Congress heavy workload lawmakers expect to debate gun safety and the debt crisis in the coming months but said politicians couldnt afford to punt the immigration issue to another political cycle.
Washington should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, he said.
Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have suggested that immigration legislation be introduced and passed in pieces, which would make it easier to get through Congress. Rubio told The Wall Street Journal that his plan would include a permanent-residency provision, possibly leading to citizenship after some years, but he stressed that the plan was not blanket amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship.
Villaraigosa has served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has passed resolutions calling for comprehensive immigration legislation. Hell give a speech on immigration later this week, when the bipartisan group meets for its winter conference in Washington.
Villaraigosa is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. A co-author of an assault-weapons ban in California, he criticized those who he says put the interests of the National Rifle Association before the safety of the American people.
Its an abomination that we dont have an assault weapons ban, he said.
Speculation has risen that Villaraigosa is being considered for secretary of transportation, but supporters such as Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, said hed also be a good choice for secretary of commerce or labor.
There is no question that hes in the mix of potential individuals who are being considered for the Cabinet, she said. Maybe hes here for an interview. We dont know that, but it would be hard to imagine that he wouldnt be a natural for one of the Cabinet positions.
Villaraigosa acknowledges his hope to stay in public office, but hes coy whether that may mean a run for governor or joining Obamas Cabinet.
Im not riding off into the sunset just yet, he said.
When asked if hed been approached about a Cabinet position, he said he preferred not to talk about his future.
He then he ticked off a list of accomplishments that would look good on a resume, including lowering crime, doubling the number of successful schools and increasing charter schools.