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In Los Angeles mayor's race, a big win for Eric Garcetti

Eric Garcetti won convincingly in the biggest-spending race in L.A. history. The former city council president faces high-stakes negotiations with unions over the city's pension obligations.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / May 22, 2013

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti arrives for an election night rally on Tuesday in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Garcetti defeated Controller Wendy Greuel to become next mayor of Los Angeles after a campaign in which he depicted his rival as a pawn of powerful labor bosses.

Chris Carlson/AP

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LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles will have its first Jewish mayor and the youngest in more than 100 years. Former City Council President Eric Garcetti beat former Controller Wendy Greuel, both Democrats, by a margin of 54 to 46 percent in the most expensive mayor race, at $33 million, in city history.

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The two had been fighting it out in a highly-visible campaign since both pushed past three other candidates in a March primary. Fluent in Spanish – which he used frequently during the campaign – Mr. Garcetti is the grandson of Mexican immigrants and the son of Gil Garcetti, a former city district attorney who became famous for prosecuting football star O.J. Simpson. He was endorsed by all his defeated primary opponents and the Los Angeles Times.

He now is to head a city of 3.8 million people that is just recently showing signs of rising above a half-decade of economic problems, perennial budget deficits, layoffs, and cuts in basic services, such as tree trimming and street paving.

As council president, it was Garcetti who took the lead in persuading colleagues to agree to cutbacks, including reducing the city workforce, raising the retirement age for future civilian workers from 55 to 65, and increasing the amount employees pay toward pensions and health care.

“Los Angeles is ready to put the recession in the rearview mirror and become the city of opportunity that I grew up in once again,” he said in his victory speech early this morning, after Ms. Greuel conceded. “It’s time for Los Angeles not just to be a big city, but a great city once again. Whether you’re down and out, or whether you’re at the top, we all believe one thing, that L.A. is worth fighting for.”

Because Los Angeles has what is known as a “weak mayor” structure – the office lacks veto power over city council votes or to appoint/remove officials – Garcetti’s challenges are huge, analysts say.

“In the campaign, he talked about job creation, but in reality, there is very little that any mayor of any city can do about it. Job creation is the result of national and international economic trends that are far beyond the jurisdiction of City Hall,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “He talked about education, but in Los Angeles, the city government has very little power over the schools. The signature problem of Los Angeles is freeway traffic, but the city doesn't control the freeways.”

Since the race was a battle between two moderate Democrats, both with nearly a decade on city council, analysts are assessing signals from Greuel’s defeat as well. She was hammered by Garcetti for accepting  millions in funds from the union that represents Department of Water and Power employees.

 “Greuel's defeat suggests that many voters are wary of union power,” says Mr. Pitney. In 2012, he says, California unions reached new heights when they helped in passing a state tax increase and electing Democratic supermajorities in the state Legislature.

“Angelinos didn't want to hand them the keys to City Hall, too,” says Pitney.

“Garcetti did not receive the vast majority of the union endorsements and may be seen now as in a good position to extract concessions from the city's labor unions,” adds Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Many voters in this very low-turnout election saw union endorsements as toxic. Garcetti was not viewed as beholden to the unions. He will now have to negotiate with them.”

In a February endorsement, the Los Angeles Times credited Garcetti with awakening the city council to take "action they did not want to take," such as imposing layoffs and requiring city workers to pay more of their medical and pension benefits. "At times when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should have been on hand to close difficult negotiations, the task was left to Garcetti, and he came through. He antagonized his allies in labor, not because he wanted to but because he saw that he had to," the Times editorialized.

Several analysts say the biggest challenge Garcetti will face is long-term pension obligations, which are bedeviling cities across the country and have contributed to the bankruptcies of the California cities of Stockton and Vallejo.

“The stock market is providing some help there. But for the next term, absent a surge in revenues fueled by either an unexpected economic explosion or an unimaginable real estate boom, the city’s pension commitments will begin to eat an ever-increasing slice of the city revenue pie,” says Michael Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Garcetti takes office July 1.

"Thank you, Los Angeles," Garcetti wrote in a tweet posted at 2:52 a.m., local time.  "The hard work begins but I am honored to lead this city for the next four years. Let's make this a great city again."

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