Antonio Villaraigosa says he’s not a “partisan warrior,” but he’s ready to fight

If there’s one thing Democratic contender for governor Antonio Villaraigosa wants voters to know about him, it’s this: “I’m not afraid to take on tough issues.”

In a conversation at CALmatters on a day when a new poll showed him dropping into third place, the former Los Angeles mayor talked education, health, fiscal policy—and how his views depart from the Democratic Party orthodoxy because he’s a “small d” Democrat.

On closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers in the state’s  public schools, he said that the state should make sure the money is targeted to the kids who need it most rather than “spreading it like peanut butter.” But he also talked about weakening tenure—lengthening the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years—and relaxing teacher seniority rules.

He also said the state should increase financial support for low income university students, rather than push for tuition-free higher education across-the-board, as many progressives do.

“Making college free? Yeah, that’s a great goal, but I think we’ve got to make it free first for the people who are absolutely destitute, the poor,” he said. “I think you get the most bang for the buck, if you want to deal with this, with the kids who need it the most.”

He endorsed the idea of a state-run public insurance option that anyone can buy into, increasing reimbursement rates for doctors that serve low-income Californians, and expanding coverage to undocumented immigrants. But he reiterated his skepticism over stalled legislation that aimed to create a single payer insurance system across California—a bill endorsed by his Democratic opponents Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin.

That division was eminently clear at the party’s state convention last month where Villaraigosa received 9 percent of the delegate vote in the contest for the party’s endorsement—and as he acknowledged, a much higher share of the booing and heckling.

“I’m not a Democrat because I think the Democratic Party is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I’m a Democrat because I believe the government has got to work for more people. I’m not a partisan warrior.”

It’s not a new persona for Villaraigosa, who sells himself as the candidate willing to speak unpleasant truths to lawmakers, interest groups, and even voters.

But there may be a downside to telling people what they don’t want to hear.

A poll released this evening by the Public Policy Institute of California showed only 12 percent of likely voters support Villaraigosa for governor—a 9 point drop for him since the institute conducted a similar survey last January. (Both polls had a margin of error of more than 4 percentage points.)

“We’ve always believed that we’ve got to get into the run-off,” said Villaraigosa, who in the latest poll comes in third among likely voters behind Newsom and Republican candidate John Cox, and ahead of fellow Democrats John Chiang and Eastin, as well as GOP candidate Travis Allen.  Under California’s “top two” primary system, only the candidates who come in first and second place during the June 5 primary will move on to the general election ballot. Villaraigosa said the biggest threat to his campaign “is a Republican knocking me out, if they consolidate….I’ve got some work to do—and I’m going to keep on working.”

Taken at face value, the new poll marks an unwelcome reversion for the former mayor, who had been eating into Newsom’s lead in most polls since last September. It also shows steep drop-offs in support from some of the demographic groups that the Villaraigosa campaign is most counting on.

In Los Angeles, his home turf, the former mayor is now 1 point behind Newsom; in January, he had nearly a 20 point lead. Meanwhile, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Newsom used to be mayor and dominates public opinion, Villaraigosa is now polling below the Republican Cox.

While Villaraigosa still had the support of more Latinos than any other candidate, at 37 percent, that’s 11 points down from the beginning of the year. Drawing strong support and historically high turnout from California’s Latino population has been a key part of Villaraigosa’s electoral strategy.

The latest poll shows a quarter of likely voters have yet to decide whom to support. Said Villaraigosa: “I don’t think the support among Latinos is anywhere near where it’s going to end up.”

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