01.10.13

The Race to Replace Antonio Villaraigosa as Los Angeles Mayor

It’s a consequential election in a quiet year at the polls, but less than two months before the vote, no one seems interested in L.A.’s tight mayoral race. David Freedlander on the fight to escape Villaraigosa’s shadow.

When Los Angeles’s most partisan and active Democrats gathered at the city’s teachers-union headquarters to decide which candidate they’d back for mayor, vote counting went several rounds and stretched late into the night. In the end, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party delegates decided to throw their backing to ... no one.

And so it has been in the early days of 2013 in Los Angeles, where one of the nation’s few political contests of note this year has gone by relatively unnoticed, despite voters heading to the polls in less than eight weeks.

“The race isn’t even getting a lot of attention out here now,” says Arnold Steinberg, a local Republican political strategist. “Probably deservedly so, in my opinion.”

What Steinberg meant is that the city will likely elect a technocrat with a long career in city government after eight years of rule by Antonio Villaraigosa. The charismatic, path-breaking first Latino mayor kept gossip mills churning with his operatic personal life, including an affair with a TV reporter covering city hall and another relationship with a former Miss U.S.A. turned local TV anchor.

Among the contenders, most Angelo political insiders name Wendy Greuel, the city comptroller and former seven-year City Council member, and Eric Garcetti, a former council president, as the most likely to make the May 21 runoff. (If no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the March 5 nonpartisan primary, the top two vote getters will head to a runoff.)

Polls show the two nearly neck and neck, leading Jan Perry, a three-term council member from downtown. Kevin James trails even further, but deserves credit, at least, for adding a dash of wacky to the proceedings as an openly gay Republican who hosts a late-night talk show on a conservative radio station. Unless he wins, James will forever be remembered for a cringe-inducing segment on Chris Matthews’s Hardball, in 2008, when he compared Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain but then, despite the MSNBC host’s repeated questioning, couldn’t say what it was exactly Chamberlain did wrong.

The battle lines, though, are still shifting, and none of the contenders looks likely to assemble the coalition of Hispanic voters and Democratic Party stalwarts that Villaraigosa did when he bumped incumbent Mayor James Hahn from office in 2005. Instead, the four candidates are all scrambling for a piece of it. Garcetti, the son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, has been bragging about his Italian last name and his combined Mexican and Jewish ancestry. “Weekends involved bowls of menudo at my grandparents’ and bagels at my cousins’ house,” he told the Los Angeles Times this month.

Naturally, such talk hasn’t sat well with Garcetti’s opponents, who have accused him of pandering and who note that despite his fluent Spanish, the race’s most unabashed liberal went to a tony prep school in Studio City.

“He is sort of like the typical episode of Seinfeld—he is titillating and interesting but sort of about nothing,” says Eric Hacopian, a political consultant working for Perry.

“They are all insiders,” says Fleming. “They are part of the problem. Let’s face it, there are no revolutionaries in this town.”

The other candidates have struggled with similarly mixed messages, however. Despite representing one of the city’s most liberal districts, Perry is presenting herself as the most pro-business candidate in the race, the one who will stand up to the city’s unions. And if she wins, she would be the city’s second African-American mayor and its first Jewish one. She converted in college and is stressing her religion as she courts a constituency that could count for up to 18 percent of the vote, according to local politicos.

“Whenever you have a three-person race, it throws a strange warp into it,” says Garry South, a longtime political guru in Los Angeles. “You have two perceived frontrunners in Greuel and Garcetti going after each with ice picks. It does theoretically leave open the possibility that a third candidate could sneak into the runoff.”

James, meanwhile, remains something of a wild card. He has been railing against the city’s unpopular political class and the City Council, but while Los Angeles has elected Republicans before, the radio talker may be a conservative bridge too far.

“He has a reasonable chance among all the people who think the city is going to shit, but he is far too conservative,” says a local operative working on the race. “The only way a Republican in L.A. can win is if they just happen to be a Republican. He is an actual Republican.”

Still, James has lined up some big-money backers who are threatening to pour millions of dollars into the race. If he is able to get any traction, it will likely be in the relatively conservative San Fernando Valley, which is Greuel’s geographic base.

“Greuel’s advantages are two,” says David Fleming, a local political power broker and former member of the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors. “We have never had a woman mayor, and of course half of the electorate are women. And two, she comes from San Fernando Valley, and you’ve got to win the Valley to win the mayorship.”

The Valley, he noted, is a world apart from the rest of the city. Once home to mostly moderate, middle-class white homeowners, it has been transformed by Latino and Asian immigration, and more than 40 percent of the electorate may hail from there.

Plus, Fleming adds, Greuel is perceived to have done a good job as city comptroller and has used the perch to increase her name recognition. Garcetti, on the other hand, “has a great personality, and he is a likable guy, but the only thing he has ever done is be president of the City Council,” Fleming says. “He has to live with the problem the city is facing because he was there for many years.”

Part of the reason the race has failed to capture much of the city’s imagination is that so far, it really has been a race about nothing. The Villaraigosa era is coming to an end, and the candidates are vying to escape its shadow.

“It could be described by that old phrase, ‘a distinction without a difference,’” says South. “All three are pretty liberal Democrats. There are differences between them, but the debates so far have been, to some degree, a difference more in tone than in process.”

The nonpartisan-primary system has added to that feeling, with most of the contenders seeking to avoid being specific for fear of needlessly antagonizing a key voting bloc.

“The reason you are not hearing more discussion about the important issues is that you don’t know which candidate is really your problem,” says Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles. “So what you need in the primary is to simply to consolidate a base that can get you into the runoff. Get two candidates in the runoff, and they will have to talk about what the city will look like.”

Which is not to say Angelos shouldn’t care. The city is facing a $427 million deficit in 2014. By 2017 the city is expected to pay more than $2 billion in pensions to retired city workers. On the stump, the candidates pay lip service to tackling these issues, but many observers wonder if they have the stomach to implement reforms and take on the powerful municipal unions.

“They are all insiders,” says Fleming. “They are part of the problem. Let’s face it, there are no revolutionaries in this town.”

And the race has stayed under the radar as well because this is, after all, Los Angeles.

“L.A. has always had a give-a-shit attitude,” South says. “We lost not one but two NFL franchises in the ’90s within two months of each other and nobody cared, and we still don’t have a team. L.A. is a big, sprawling city with not a lot of glue that holds it together. There so many distractions—the weather is good; you can go to the beach, skiing up in the mountains, one of the amusement parks. It is really hard to engage the people of L.A. in a passionate discussion about politics. It’s not like Chicago, where you go into a bar after work and all people are yakking about is what the City Council is doing.”