Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made waves for accusing the Republicans of trying to sugarcoat the apparent lack of diversity on the floor of their convention with a high-profile lineup of minority speakers.
But at a luncheon of Latino leaders that drew more than 700 on Tuesday afternoon, Villaraigosa, who was honored at the gathering, kept his focus on why President Barack Obama should be re-elected.
Villaraigosa, who is chairman of the Democratic National Convention, stuck to points expected to be pressed this week – that under Obama, this country will remain a place where people on the bottom economic rungs can rise to better lives, where programs will continue that help the disadvantaged, and where the undocumented can still have hope of someday legalizing their status.
Villaraigosa several times focused the audience on undocumented immigrants in the room who had been brought as minors and are fighting for a path to legalization.
He invited some of them to join him on the stage, and asked them their names.
He said they have become easy targets for “scapegoating. . .extreme proposals.”
But really, he said in an often impassioned voice, they are “people who have lived here most of their lives, oftentimes knowing no other country, who want to serve our country and defend our liberties.”
“To many people they’re faceless, they’re almost not human,” he said, “but they’re our future, we love you!”
He took on the criticism of Obama's handling of the economy, which has seen a slow recovery.
“For the first time since the early 1990s, we’re actually growing manufacturing jobs," he said. "Not only did he help create 4.5 million jobs, but 32 million people have healthcare because of him,” Villaraigosa said to loud applause.
“And we have to understand that nine million of those 32 million are Latinos,” he said. “They’re better off.”
“And ask the 150,000 kids who got student loans because of his policy, they’re better off…”
Referring to the immigrants brought to the country as minors and who are hoping for the eventual passage of the DREAM Act, a congressional measure that would allow those who meet a strict set of criteria to apply for legalization, he said: "Ask the DREAMers, they’re better off" because of Obama.
Obama in June announced that he would suspend deportations of undocumented immigrants brought as minors who satisfied certain requirements, among them never having had a criminal offense and having come to the United States before the age of 16. They would also be eligible for work permits and some other benefits, though the reprieve – called "deferred action" – does not give them legal status.
Villaraigosa made waves lasts week after he slammed Republican efforts to use Latino speakers at the convention to win over Latino voters.
He said the GOP "can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname" and expect Latinos to vote Republican. He called that window dressing.
As with many speakers last week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, many speakers this week – including Villaraigosa – will try to give the heavily scripted, uber-political nature of these gatherings an intimate, personal feel with stories about their own hardships and tales of triumph against the odds.
Where Republican speakers’ tales of overcoming hardship stressed the “we built that” theme, and focused on how they did it on their own, without government help, Villaraigosa said this is the land of the American Dream, and that sometimes government help must play a part.
He spoke about his grandfather, how he came with nothing, and worked in the fields, eventually building a business. His mother, he said, got to attend the best boarding school in Los Angeles and learned to speak five languages.
His grandfather, he said, “left Mexico because it was rich and poor, no middle class.”
“He wanted to go to a country where you could start at the bottom and end up at the top, and we believe in that [kind of] country too,” he said.
Villaraigosa said people always tell him he got to Harvard because he was smart. He tells them they’re wrong. He tells them, he said, that he got into the elite university because of affirmative action.
“This convention,” he told the audience, “will make crystal clear that there are two roads ahead.”
Republicans have countered that the Obama administration, and Democrats in general, favor big government and keeps people dependent on aid, dissuading them from self-reliance.
Democrats have sought to portray GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as someone who views things from a position of wealth and privilege, and has no compassion for the less fortunate.
“Helping to elect President Obama," Villaraigosa said. "Has to be our mission.”
Elizabeth Llorente will be reporting all week from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente