Who will be next L.A. mayor? It's a done deal, except for the name

The two City Council veterans left standing after the Tuesday primary for Los Angeles mayor have a lot in common: political insiders, liberal Democrats, ties to labor, and so on. The runoff is May 21.

This combo image shows Los Angeles mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti, left, and Wendy Greuel. The outcome after the Tuesday primary in the heavily Democratic city sends the two City Hall veterans to a May 21 runoff.

The political profile of the next mayor of Los Angeles was pretty much settled Tuesday in the primary election. The only outstanding issue is precisely who the new mayor will be.

Two City Council veterans, Eric Garcetti, age 42, the council president, and Wendy Greuel, 51, the city controller, emerged as the top two of five main and three lesser-known candidates in the primary. They will battle for 11 weeks until a May 21 runoff.

Both are political insiders. Both are liberal Democrats. And both have ties to organized labor but have also courted business by supporting elimination of a tax on gross receipts.

“As William F. Buckley Jr. once said of candidates in a race for mayor of New York, their differences are biological, not political,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Noting that the next mayor will have little or no power over many of the key issues facing the city – such as education and freeway construction – Professor Pitney says the city’s economic future is bleak. “The next mayor will have to focus on cutbacks. Neither candidate has a magic wand that will fill the city’s treasury,” he says. The passage of a half-cent sales tax increase will help – bringing in $200 million a year, but it pushes the rate to 9.5 percent, one of the highest in the state.

The list of “boths” goes on: Both candidates would become mayor in a “weak mayor” system  – meaning he or she has no formal authority outside of the council, cannot remove or approve officials, and lacks veto power over council votes. As such, the mayor's power is based largely on personal persuasion in order to accomplish desired goals.

“Quite frankly, I just don’t see any difference,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe,  a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. She says Ms. Greuel has more support from the big unions – the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – which is a plus for funding but a minus in breaking the strong perception that she can’t stand up to them to do what is needed for pension reform, a major issue for the city’s finances.

“One of the biggest problems for the next mayor here is how to reform pensions,” says Ms. Jeffe. “Between now and May, Greuel will have to get specific on how she intends to do that.”

Jeffe adds that Greuel would make history as the city’s first woman mayor but notes that black and Latino women here have already lodged strong protests over Greuel’s campaign attacks against Jan Perry, a black councilwoman who ran in the primary. In debates and four-color fliers emblazoned with large red type (“A History of Financial Mismanagement”), Greuel spotlighted Ms. Perry as having gone bankrupt twice despite her $178,789 salary.

Mirroring the national situation, jobs is probably the No. 1 concern for Los Angeles voters. The unemployment rate in November was 10.9 percent, 6 percent above the 2006 rate.

And while both Greuel and Mr. Garcetti have backed plans to eliminate the business tax over 15 years, the city’s chief legislative analyst and city administrative officer have each called the plans “poor public policy.” Both officials have admonished that the city would need to counterbalance a loss of more than $400 million in revenue if it phased out the tax, even if doing so draws new businesses to Los Angeles.

"The next mayor of Los Angeles needs to make good jobs his or her No. 1 priority, because almost every other quality-of-life indicator follows from that," says Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), an advocacy organization that has led efforts to pass living wage laws and other policies to rebuild L.A.'s middle class.

"This means finding creative ways to transform low-wage industries like waste and recycling, hospitality and retail into sources of middle-class employment – and making sure that new jobs are good jobs rather than Wal-Mart-style poverty-wage jobs."

All this said, the Los Angeles Times has endorsed Garcetti as the best man to lead Los Angeles “out of its current malaise and into a more sustainable and confident future.” It notes, however, that Garcetti – city councilman for a dozen years and president for six – was partly responsible for the city’s current deficit by helping to negotiate employee contracts the city can’t afford, which led in turn to deep cuts in services.

But it also says Garcetti has been the one to help return the city to fiscal soundness by strongly leaning on colleagues to do what they didn’t want to do, forcing layoffs and withdrawing pension and medical benefits on those left behind. He was on hand during difficult key negotiations, the paper says, when current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not, suggesting that Garcetti has what it takes. “He antagonized his allies in labor, not because he wanted to but because he saw that he had to,” says a Feb. 17 editorial. “That fact undermines the too-common chatter that he lacks backbone.”

Most analysts here see Garcetti as the front-runner in the runoff election. He is a fourth-generation Angeleno and the son of a former Los Angeles County district attorney, Gil Garcetti, who served from 1992 to 2000.

“Garcetti has positioned himself as the front-runner, which you can tell in his ads because they are overwhelmingly positive,” says Jessica Levinson, professor of law at Loyola Law School and former director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. “Greuel is capitalizing on her time as city controller by fashioning herself as the one who can clean the fiscal house.”

The L.A. Times says Greuel failed to fulfill the potential of the controller office, but “claims she could, as mayor, do what she could not as controller. That is not an argument that inspires confidence.”

Jeffe says both candidates have some support from Hollywood, though Garcetti has more and Greuel has more independent contributions – although they are very close in total funding.

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