Is Antonio Villaraigosa poised to be America’s first Latino president?

LOS ANGELES—When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gavels the 2012 Democratic National Convention into session in Charlotte, N.C., this September, his role as prominent cheerleader for President Barack Obama will be clear.

It is less clear, for now, if Villaraigosa has designs on the ultimate convention role in 2016—taking center stage to accept his party's nomination on the final night.

Despite running the country's second largest city and coming from the fastest growing voting demographic in America, the mayor himself is quick to wave off talk of a presidential run.

"The answer is no," Villaraigosa replied when asked by Yahoo News if he wanted to be president one day. "I want to finish this job with a bang. I want to go out with my head up high. I want to say to this city, 'I put everything into this job,'" he added.

"The job I've said to people I would like is I would like to be governor of the state of California," he said. (Paging Jerry Brown.)

It's easy to dismiss Villaraigosa's likelihood of capturing the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, much less the presidency, due to his rocky (and public) personal life, lack of a developed national fundraising base and occasional conflicts with portions of his political base.

But recall that Bill Clinton made it to the Oval Office with the personal baggage of infidelity and Barack Obama became the first nonwhite candidate to achieve the highest office in the land—you can begin to see how Villaraigosa's interest in a 2016 run may yet develop.

Villaraigosa's term as mayor of Los Angeles is up July 1, 2013. He says he will spend his remaining time in office bolstering his accomplishments in crime reduction (a 40.6 percent drop in violent crime, 41 percent drop in homicides), the environment (doubled the Kyoto protocol required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, bringing them down to 14 percent of 1990 levels in seven years), education (reduced schools defined as "failing" according to state scores from 33 percent to 10 percent), and transportation (more on that later). Charlotte provides an opportunity to start road testing his brand beyond Los Angeles' city limits.

"I think I'm going to take a time out. I'll probably associate with a think tank or a university. I want to write. I want to read. I'll probably speak around the country. I certainly get enough invitations," he said of his immediate post-mayoral plans.

Villaraigosa recently wrapped up a one-year tenure as the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he wrangled more than 200 mayors to support his successful push for "America Fast Forward," a federal loan program for transportation infrastructure projects that will allow cities to leverage federal dollars over an extended period of time. Obama signed the expanded program into law as part of the larger transportation bill earlier this month at the White House with Villaraigosa by his side.

Now the mayor's travel is mostly on behalf of the Obama campaign, for which he has done no fewer than 20 either official or campaign related events over the last year at various state party gatherings, fundraisers, constituency group conferences and official policy events. The potential benefits of circling the country to meet party activists and elected officials in key states including Florida, Nevada and New Mexico is lost on no one.

The president's re-election team believes Villaraigosa has been one of its most helpful surrogates on the trail this year in wooing Hispanic voters to come out in greater numbers and deliver an even greater margin of victory for the president among those voters.

He won't be the only Hispanic elected official in the Charlotte spotlight. The Obama convention team announced this morning that 37-year-old San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will deliver the keynote speech on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Nearly 22 million Hispanic Americans are expected to be eligible to vote in the presidential election this year. If the rapid population growth rate among Latinos continues apace, that number will be even greater in 2016.

Villaraigosa is no stranger to political ambition—and its attendant disappointments. He describes his first, unsuccessful attempt at capturing City Hall in 2001 as "audacious." Certainly, a presidential run would be no less so. Fast changing demographics may be his entree into the 2016 conversation, but he is well aware they cannot be the rationale for a candidacy.

"When I ran in 2001, everyone said, 'Antonio, you are going to be mayor one day, why run now?'" Advisers told him the Latino slice of the electorate would not be large enough to deliver him a victory until 2017.

"I said, 'What?' and I just went after everybody. The Latinos said I wasn't Latino enough and not running a Latino campaign," he said. He doesn't see the Latino vote as a monolithic bloc, but he's also never been the only Latino in a race. "Every race I've had, I've always had Latinos in the race. It's interesting."

As with most politicians from outside Washington, D.C., eager to play up centrist credentials, Villaraigosa tends to portray himself as a problem solver.

"I want to be part of a discussion about what I call the radical middle that says the way for us to forge ahead is to move ahead, and you can only do that by taking the best of both views and forge a consensus based on results and putting the nation first," he said.

One example is his stance on the deficit and debt reduction plan put forth by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission. Democratic Party leaders, including Obama, never fully embraced the commission's 2010 plan, for fear of alienating key constituents over entitlement reforms. Were Villaraigosa in Congress with a chance to vote on Simpson-Bowles, he would support it. "Absolutely," he said, without hesitation. (Paging Nancy Pelosi.)

He also casts a critical eye toward teachers unions.

"I think there are teachers unions around the country realizing they want to improve standards of the profession, improve the quality of their profession, and ultimately attract the best and the brightest to their profession. The vast majority of teachers are dedicated and committed, but I do believe some of our teachers unions, while not the biggest problem, are the most powerful defenders of a broken system." (Paging Randi Weingarten.)

To be sure, this former Southern California ACLU president who has fought against the death penalty and for same sex marriage equality since 1994 will have plenty of data points to share with potential liberal Democratic supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire should he choose to take the plunge.

And he saves his strongest criticism for the Republicans, specifically on immigration.

"For some time I've said this issue of comprehensive immigration reform is not just an issue about immigration or human rights or civil rights, it's about our economy. You take 11 million people from out of the dark and into the light, the think tanks have surmised that you are talking about trillions of dollars infusion into the economy," he said before launching the political attack.

"The far rightward tilt of the Republican Party has marginalized them with Latinos, with women, with African Americans in a way that if they don't change, if they don't move to the center, it will make them the Whig Party of the next millennium," Villaraigosa said.

The mayor has time to sort out his plans for future elected office, be it in Sacramento or Washington. But thinking about that future has already begun.

"I'm not sure the way I've taken on the left and the right is going to endear me in a primary, but I'll be 60 in January. I've been doing this for a while. I don't want to do this if we're not going to be bold and transformative. I just don't want to do it. I'm really comfortable in my skin right now," he said.