Two City Hall veterans claimed spots Wednesday in a runoff for mayor of Los Angeles, setting up a confrontation likely to turn on personality and style since the Democratic pair share much of the same policy turf.
City Councilman Eric Garcetti topped the field in Tuesday's election, carrying 33 percent of the vote. Since no candidate cleared a majority of the vote needed to win outright, he'll face Controller Wendy Greuel in the May 21 matchup to replace exiting Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She had 29 percent, accordingly to preliminary returns.
Meanwhile, in a decision that will hang heavy on the next mayor of the financially troubled city, voters knocked down a proposed increase to the city's sales tax — a half-cent boost to 9.5 percent. The measure was defeated by a double-digit margin, returns showed.
"Our work isn't over," Garcetti said in a fundraising pitch after the polls closed. "It would be easy to let up and take a break. But you deserve better from me, and Los Angeles deserves better from us. We need to keep our foot on the gas."
With all precincts reporting, along with a partial count of mail-in ballots, Garcetti and Greuel were followed by Republican Kevin James, with just over 16 percent, and Democratic Councilwoman Jan Perry, who was a fraction behind him. The fifth candidate in the field was Los Angeles County Democratic Chair Eric Bauman.
The city appears headed for another first at City Hall. Greuel would become the first woman mayor, and Garcetti could become the first Jew elected to the post (but not the first to hold it in a temporary capacity). The two candidates also have roots in the city's San Fernando Valley.
The election capped a lackluster primary campaign that was snubbed by most of the city's 1.8 million voters. Turnout was scant.
The next mayor of the nation's second largest city inherits a raft of problems: Crime is relatively low but City Hall is nearly broke, the airport is an embarrassment, freeways remain clogged and potholes, cracked sidewalks and untended trees infest many neighborhoods.
Rising pension and health care costs for workers threaten dollars needed for libraries, street repairs and other services.
"The city's ability to provide services that improve the quality of life of city residents has diminished," city Administrative Officer Miguel Santana wrote in a report last month.
Angelenos are known to give local politics a collective shrug, and turnout failed to reach 30 percent in Villaraigosa's hotly contested primary in 2005, when he was trying to become the first Hispanic mayor in more than a century. He was re-elected in 2009 with a meager 152,000 votes, in a city of nearly 4 million people.
Preliminary returns hinted that turnout Tuesday was unlikely to break 20 percent.
The leading candidates dueled mostly over pocketbook issues and City Hall insider politics — a looming deficit, 10.2 percent unemployment, the grip of municipal unions.
"The campaign itself hasn't really gotten people's blood going," said longtime Democratic strategist Garry South. "It's been small-bore stuff for the most part and the average voter is saying, 'What's this got to do with me?'"
The Los Angeles mayor presides over a budget that exceeds $7 billion, but it is a comparatively weak office hemmed in by a powerful City Council. Unlike other big cities such as New York, the Los Angeles mayor cannot directly appoint the head of schools or police.
Voters also were picking a city attorney, city controller and about half the 15 members of the City Council.