SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Don't dismiss Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from the 2010 governor's race just because he revealed Tuesday he had an ongoing extramarital relationship, political analysts say.
Many believe Villaraigosa's revelation will have only a marginal impact on the Democrat's chances to win the state's top office in three years. The former Assembly speaker is still considered among the early front-runners in a large field once Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is termed out.
Villaraigosa said Tuesday he has had a relationship with Telemundo reporter Mirthala Salinas that has evolved over time, according to a recording posted by the Los Angeles Times.
The acknowledgment came after the mayor separated last month from his wife, Corina, who has since filed for divorce. At the time, Villaraigosa took responsibility for the breakup but refused to answer questions about what he had done to cause it. He came clean Tuesday only after the Los Angeles Daily News confirmed his involvement with Salinas through his 88-year-old mother-in-law.
"It seems to me that people care more about the policy records of politicians these days than about their private lives," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political science professor. "If it looks like Antonio Villaraigosa has the best chance of taking back the governor's office, California Democrats will be very forgiving. It's as simple as that."
Villaraigosa's disclosure was the latest in a string of personal revelations by modern politicians, though it wasn't even the first among potential Democratic candidates for governor. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom apologized in February for having an affair with his campaign manager's wife and then sought help for alcohol abuse.
In national politics, there was President Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky in the White House. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican presidential candidate, has been married three times and had a messy second divorce that involved an extramarital relationship.
"It's a story for now (for Villaraigosa) and may continue for a month or so, but I don't think it'll have long-lasting legs that will impact the 2010 elections," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "It's become such a commonplace occurrence that it doesn't weigh down the political ambitions of candidates who get divorced or have an affair."
Still, Villaraigosa can expect a full rehashing of events during a gubernatorial campaign, judging by past years. During the 2003 recall campaign, Schwarzenegger had to apologize publicly after the Times reported that several women claimed he groped or humiliated them during his acting career. He said he had "behaved badly."
Garry South, who ran Democratic gubernatorial campaigns for Gov. Gray Davis and former State Controller Steve Westly, said Villaraigosa will face unprecedented scrutiny during a long statewide run.
"I don't think the revelations are helpful, and I think anyone would be a fool to think they would not have an impact when you have to run a high-visibility, high-scrutiny race for governor," South said. "What kind of person you've been will play a factor."
South, who has not committed to any candidate, said he believes the Democratic primary in 2010 was wide open even before the latest Villaraigosa incident, based on internal polls. Because no incumbent is running for the first time since 1998, analysts estimate that 10 or more Democratic candidates are in a position to consider a gubernatorial run.
That includes sitting constitutional officeholders and some 2006 statewide candidates such as Westly, former state Treasurer Phil Angelides and former state Sen. Jackie Speier. Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown continues to have high name identification, while Lt. Gov. John Garamendi has aggressively pursued media coverage.
But Villaraigosa's marital problems won't necessarily give any candidate new hope, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist.
"They've all been around a long time, and they consequently know as well as anyone that in politics, as in life, everyone has good stretches and bad stretches," Sragow said. "To the extent that any of them consider a run for 2010, they know whatever is going on in 2007 will be ancient history by then."
Yet South said time doesn't wipe the slate clean. In 1998, he noted, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren's lack of military service arose decades after Lungren received a medical deferral from the draft.
"Everything becomes potentially subject to attack and inquiry when you're a candidate for governor," South said.
Republican consultant Wayne Johnson doesn't see Villaraigosa's revelation becoming a major factor in the governor's race - unless the divorce turns particularly messy. One of Johnson's clients, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, is considered a potential 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate.
"If it turns out to be a problematic separation or if it's suddenly tabloid stuff, then I think it's an issue," Johnson said. "If it's just one more sad story of infidelity in California, then it's not really news."