DNC Chair: Democrats Will 'Set The Record Straight'

As the Democratic National Convention begins in Charlotte, host Michel Martin checks in with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is chairing the event. The Los Angeles Mayor says the Democrats have grown more jobs in the worst recession since the great depression in four years than President Bush did in eight.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, a lot's been said about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas - those two gold medals, her hair. But she recently revealed she was once bullied by other kids, and she thinks her race was a part of it. Our moms will be here to talk about that; and how they deal with those difficult conversations about race, with their children.

But first, we have a Newsmaker interview with the chair of this year's Democratic National Convention: the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. The convention kicks off today in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were able to catch up with him in our studios in Washington, D.C., when he en route. And he's with us now.

Welcome back to the program, Mr. Mayor. Thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Are you kidding? And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So how do you get to be chair of the convention? Is this one of those "get to," or "have to"? Is it congratulations, or condolences, we are offering you?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, it's a deep honor. To be asked by the president of the United States to serve as a national co-chair, and chair of the Democratic Party Convention, is - you know, something that you pinch your cheek about, and certainly feel very honored by.

MARTIN: How has the planning gone? You know, we're told that the fundraising has been more challenging than many people would have hoped, for all kinds of reasons.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, the biggest reason is that we've not taken corporate dollars or lobbyist dollars. We've tried to - I think we have had 85 times more the individual contributions than at any time, for a convention. We have a lot of small-dollar contributions and - you know, one dollar at a time. But we're going to put on a convention, that's for sure; and we'll have the money to do it.

MARTIN: Well, there's been some dispute about whether, in fact, corporate donations are being made. So corporate donations are being made to somebody; but not to put on the convention, per se?

VILLARAIGOSA: Not to put on the convention. You know, maybe to some of the parties; the host committee is different than the convention, but they're going to be promoting Charlotte so of course, they were willing to take that kind of money. But we chose not to. It's the first time a convention has done that. It's in contra-distinction to what the Republicans are doing.

MARTIN: You actually attended part of the Republican National Convention, as I understand it. What were you doing there - spying? Brushing up? You learn anything?

VILLARAIGOSA: Comparing and contrasting. I mean, look, it's important to set the record straight. They'll be at our convention as well, and we'll welcome them. I hope they'll do a little differently than they've done up till now - which is misrepresent and mischaracterize their own record, and the president's.

MARTIN: Well, we'll talk about that in a minute - what the president's record is, and what you hope to accomplish at the convention. But I did want to ask, just briefly, about one more thing about the whole convention thing, period. You know, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich - who ran for president this time, right - but when he was speaker, he used to say that you should have one basic rule for a policy or a program or a habit; which is, if you aren't already doing it, would you start?

Do these conventions - not just yours, but all of them - meet that standard? If you weren't already having one, would you start?

VILLARAIGOSA: I think you would, but I will say this: There's no question that conventions have changed over time, from the very first convention, and that they'll continue to change. I think it's still an opportunity to not just launch the campaign when people are actually starting to watch, but also to frame it; kind of frame what the issues are, what the choices are, before us.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to ask, what do you hope to accomplish?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, first of all, we've got to set the record straight. President Obama, under his watch, has had 29 straight months of a growing economy. We've grown more jobs, in the worst recession since the Great Depression, in four years; than President Bush did in eight. So I think we're going to lay out what we're for.

We're going to clarify the record of what the president did, with respect to Medicare. Let's be clear: He extended the life of Medicare another eight years. He took $716 billion, and put it back in drug benefits for seniors and preventative services. He didn't do what the Ryan-Romney budget has proposed - eliminate that $716 billion by just cutting services. They proposed to make Medicare a voucher plan - a coupon plan, if you will - that won't get the same level of services. So we're going to set the record straight, compare and contrast.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. He is the chair of the Democratic National Convention, which begins today in Charlotte, North Carolina. We caught up with him in advance of his trip there.

You know, what is the argument to the basic argument that the Republicans make - which is that the president, however much you may like him, has not delivered on his promise to improve the economy - grow the economy, and cut the deficit? It just hasn't happened.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, 29 straight months of a growing economy. We've already cut $2 trillion in the deficit. He's proposing another $4 trillion in cuts. But what he won't do, what he can't do, is raise taxes on the middle class. I mean, let's be clear. If Gov. Romney is going to cut $5 trillion in taxes, disproportionately advantaging the super-wealthy, it's going to be at the expense of the middle class.

It'll mean higher health-care premiums. It'll mean the elimination of the mortgage tax deduction. It will be cuts to loans for students who want to go to college. It will be cuts in infrastructure. That budget will cut virtually everything except for defense and Social Security. So that is not the kind of cuts that will grow our economy. And they're not proposing, as we are, the kind of investments that will grow the economy, and that will pay dividends down the line.

MARTIN: But the polling suggests that there really aren't that many people who have not yet made up their minds; so what this really is about is not so much about persuasion of the undecided, as it is about motivating the already decided. You know, you made a comment that got some attention last week - at a press conference, in advance of the convention - saying, quote, "You can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname, and expect people are going to vote for your party or your candidate."

That was, you know, obviously aimed at the Republicans. Now, the Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke at the RNC introducing the nominee Mitt Romney, responded to that comment on ABC's "Good Morning America." I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Quite frankly, what he's saying is true for both parties. The policies matter. And look, the Republican Party does have a challenge. We can't just be the anti-illegal immigration party. We have to be the pro-legal immigration party.

MARTIN: Speaking to the challenge on your side, you know, of the aisle, it's been reported all year long that a lot of the president's key supporters are disappointed. He recently made some moves, offering a path on deferred action for young immigrants. But a lot of people say, you know what? It's just too little, too late. So what about your challenge? Do you have a challenge in getting the president's base to come out?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, first of all, I don't disagree with Sen. Marco Rubio. As he said, we actually agree on that. You can't just have Latino or Spanish surname, Spanish-speaking people, speaking at your convention - Democrat or Republican - and expect that that's going to motivate or attract, get support, among that particular electorate; any more true - any more than you could do that with a European or an African-American or an Asian. So we agree on that. What I was - the point I was making was, they've got a tougher task. And I think he agrees with that point of view as well.

I mean, their platform calls for the south deportation of 11 million people. A lot has been said about Sen. Marco Rubio and Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. Not as much has been said about Kris Kobach, the architect of the Arizona law or Sheriff Arpaio, a man made famous for his racial profiling of Latinos in Arizona.

So yes, we all have our work cut out for us. But we have an easier task at hand, and I'll tell you why. Not just because we have surrogates who speak Spanish or are Latino or African-American - and we are a much broader party. This will be the most diverse convention in history - either party. You'll see every face that represents this beautiful kaleidoscope of ethnicities that is America.

VILLARAIGOSA: I think the difference is, we have a platform: the Affordable Care Act - 9 million Latinos will benefit, out of the 32 million people who benefit from the Affordable Care Act; our Medicare proposal, the B Supp Medicare, that provides more services to the elderly; we believe that we can have secure borders, but also comprehensive immigration reform; and we believe that the DREAM Act is something that needs bipartisan support. So that's a little different than, I think, the other side.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, one of the things we've been asking, you know, all of our guests last week during the Republican convention - we intend to ask our guests this week during the Democratic convention - is, what is does a successful country look like to you?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, I think it's fairly simple. It's an opportunity America. It's an America where you can start out at the bottom and go to the top, on a scale and scope that we can all be proud of. It's an America that invests in its next generation, that understands that education is the key to that opportunity America. We can't eviscerate the safety net for students, make it so impossible for working families in the middle class to go to college. We can't say that college is a luxury - as they have. We've got to invest in workforce development. We've got to invest in the infrastructure that's the foundation for our economic competitiveness.

We've got to do all of the things that we've done in the past, on a greater scale than we've done in the past. If you look back at the last eight years of Bush, they were years that took us from a surplus to the highest deficits in our history. They were years when the working poor - and the poor overall - had programs cut to the bone. And so we've got to make investments again. I think that's success, but make it on a scale and scope where that opportunity America is all across the board.

MARTIN: Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles. He's the co-chair of this year's Democratic National Convention that kicks off today in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios on his way to Charlotte. And thank you very much for being with us, and our best wishes for a successful convention.

VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you, Michel.

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