Endorsing Antonio: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at How the Times Editorial Board Made Its Pick
This week, the Los Angeles Times published its endorsement of Antonio Villaraigosaas California’s next governor. And some of you may be thinking we made our choice because of the L.A. connection.
Nope. That’s not at all how the endorsement process works. If it were, we wouldn’t need a staff of editorial writers and I wouldn’t have a job. In fact, our long familiarity with our former mayor, as seen through the deep archive of stories and editorials examining every achievement and failure of the first Latino mayor in modern L.A. history, was probably more of a liability to Villaraigosa.
Editorial writers and boards don’t often explain how we come to the conclusions we do, but maybe we should so that readers understand that we don’t make these decisions idly. I know that, on average, I spend more time on endorsement editorials than your average policy editorial, even super-wonky ones.
So, for anyone who is interested, here’s a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the L.A Times editorial board:
In a sense, we’ve been preparing for this endorsement for a while — at least since it became clear that Villaraigosa was going to take on Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been running for the top job for, like, eight years. We kept tabs on the two as we would any well-known politicians, filing away notable utterances and accomplishments in our mental “governor 2018” files. As other well-known people announced they were joining the race — for example, state Treasurer John Chiang and Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) — the mental folders were supplemented by digital ones.
In March, we invited all of the 27 gubernatorial candidates to meet with the editorial board in person. That’s right, even those with no money, no campaign and no clue. In one rare case, we spoke to a candidate on the phone from Africa.
Before the interviews, we researched the candidates as much as possible — their positions, policies and any trouble they may have caused or gotten into. In the interviews we asked questions about the big issues of the day (Will you support the bullet train? What’s your plan for water security? What’s the best way to respond to the Trump administration?) as well as ones tailored to the candidate in front of us (Could Newsom explain whether he supports high speed rail or not?).
After the interviews, we conferred on what we heard and knew, then narrowed the field down to the two candidates we felt were the best, Newsom and Villaraigosa. On paper, these guys look a lot alike: two charismatic and reliability Democratic politicians, both of whom were decent-or-better mayors of major California cities and had serious Sacramento skills (as lieutenant governor and speaker of the Assembly, respectively.) Both even have the same kind of baggage in the form of extramarital affairs.
But there are substantial differences between the two, and fleshing them out took weeks of heavy-duty reporting. We talked to more than a dozen people, including folks who worked with the candidates at some point in their careers, former and current colleagues, supporters and critics.
Usually during the endorsement reporting process, one candidate begins to emerge as clearly superior in the mind of the lead writer. That’s the point she or he will make a pitch to the rest of the board. Then the debate begins. Sometimes it’s a short conversation, as when, say, there’s one amazing candidate among a field of undistinguished ones. Other times it can be a fierce debate that takes several discussions to settle.
I’m not at liberty to recount the details of the board’s discussion of the governor endorsement. All I will say is that it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t easy, and it had nothing to do with the L.A. connection.