L.A. Faceoff

04.24.13

Obama Vs. Clinton, the Rematch, in the Los Angeles Race for Mayor

Their epic battle ended in 2008. But the forces of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are squaring off anew in L.A., splitting over mayoral candidates Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti. David Freedlander reports.

Call it Game Change: Hollywood.

Five years after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s epic primary battle captivated the nation and tore apart longtime Democratic allies, the two sides are squaring off again. The prize this time is not the Democratic nomination for president but the mayoralty of Los Angeles.

Over the weekend, former president Bill Clinton stumped in the city for city comptroller Wendy Greuel, a staffer in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during his administration. The duo hosted a town hall meeting and made a requisite stop at Langer’s Deli downtown. While they were out on the hustings, David Plouffe, the campaign manager for Obama’s 2008 effort and a top adviser during his first term, tweeted: “Not an Angeleno but will never forget Eric Garcetti bundled up during frigid last days of Iowa, canvassing relentlessly for then Sen Obama.”

That was a reference to Greuel’s opponent, City Council member Garcetti, who endorsed Obama early in 2007, back when the rest of the Democratic establishment was firmly in Hillary Clinton’s camp. He went on to become the California co-chairman of Obama’s campaign, and that early support of Obama has been a calling card ever since. A large poster of the two has decorated the front door of Garcetti’s campaign headquarters, and he has sent out mailers featuring the president to the homes of black voters in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel (C) receives endorsements from U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at a meeting of the Feminist Majority Foundation on April 4, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

Unfortunately for Garcetti, Obama has declined to follow his former aide’s lead. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier this month that although Obama “appreciates” his relationship with Garcetti, “there won’t be a formal endorsement.”

But the Clinton-Obama divisions are not limited to just the principals. Ace Smith, a Los Angeles political consultant who served as state director of Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in California, Texas, and North Carolina, is running the campaign of an outside super PAC-like outfit called Working California that is backing Greuel. Michael Trujillo, who was a field director for the Clinton campaign, is now advising Greuel as well.

“There are a lot of old Clintonites out here, and almost all of them are a part of Wendy’s campaign,” said Eric Hacopian, a political operative who guided a third candidate in the primary. “The Clinton people are far more active for Wendy Greuel than the Obama people are for Eric.”

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Candidate in the Los Angeles City mayoral race, Councilman Eric Garcetti arrives to speak to supporters at an election night party on March 5, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

Meanwhile, Eric Paquette, an executive at Sony and a major bundler for Obama, is Garcetti’s finance chairman. Obama’s 2008 state director, Mary Jane Stevenson, has started an outside spending group called Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti for Mayor. Corky Hale, a jazz musician and wife of songwriter Mike Stoller (of Lieber and Stoller fame) and a very early Obama supporter in 2007, has given that group $25,000, according to co-founder Rick Jacobs, a Democratic fundraiser. Daniel Wagner, the chief analytics officer of the Obama campaign, and David Binder, former Obama pollster, are also working for Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti for Mayor.

“The Obama-Clinton comparison is so obvious here,” said Jacobs. “You have Bill Clinton coming out here, saying, ‘Vote for Wendy Greuel, essentially because she came out early for my wife.’ Plus you have the establishment campaign Wendy is running, getting anybody who has a big name to endorse her, while you have Eric, who was one of the first politicians in California to endorse Obama, who took a risk because Hillary was thought to be inevitable.”

But this is Los Angeles, and this is the Democratic Party, so the lines aren’t clear. Movie execs David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg were early Obama supporters who now back Greuel. And a host of former Obama campaign aides helped out Greuel’s digital and field efforts.

Still, the divisions are proof of how searing the 2008 campaign was for Democratic partisans and how even five years later—and despite Hillary Clinton going on to work in the Obama administration—the fault lines separating the two sides remain.

Garcetti and Greuel are facing off in a May 21 runoff after scoring first and second place, respectively, in a March 5 runoff. Greuel was widely expected to best Garcetti in the head-to-head match-up but since has sputtered, trailing him by 10 points in a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

“Greuel is Clinton’s candidate, but Garcetti is an Obama-esque candidate. She would be the first woman mayor, so there is a Hillary Clinton parallel.”

Her fade has led L.A. politicos to note another parallel to the 2008 campaign—an early female front-runner stumbling when matched up head to head against her younger male counterpart. The parallels don’t end there. Greuel has relied on a combination of female and moderate voters who so far have not been enthusiastic about her candidacy. Garcetti, meanwhile, has been assembling a coalition of younger and Hispanic voters who have given him the polling lead with less than a month to go. In addition, Garcetti’s campaign has been run by a mostly tightly knit group of loyalists, while Greuel allies are fretting that her bid is “quickly becoming an embarrassment,” as one put it. Last month, four key aides, all of them former Obama aides, quit the Greuel operation, a moment reminiscent of when Clinton’s campaign manager and other key aides were ousted after she struggled to gain traction in the Democratic primaries.

“Greuel is Clinton’s candidate, but Garcetti is an Obama-esque candidate,” said Garry South, a longtime Southern California political consultant. “She would be the first woman mayor, so there is a Hillary Clinton parallel. And she has run the kind of campaign that probably was designed to appeal to voters who were Clinton fans. Garcetti is younger and has clearly tried to take advantage of the Obama coalition.”