As Eight Candidates Vie to Be Los Angeles’s Next Mayor, Voters Tune Out

Many have yet to commit to a candidate in what is setting up to be a high-stakes but low turnout contest, reports Christine Pelisek.

LOS ANGELES—The eight-candidate, nonpartisan contest to succeed term-limited Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is coming to a head with Tuesday’s primary, but many citizens in the city that’s facing vast nine-digit budget shortfalls have tuned out a race that has lacked the star power of previous elections.

According to a USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll out Sunday, City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti—a pair of city-hall veterans who have racked up union endorsements and benefited from heavy spending from outside PACs in the city’s first post–Citizens United contest—are at the top of the crowded field, with about 25 percent support each. Nearly half of the voters who picked a candidate, however, said they still might change their mind, while 14 percent had yet to decide at all.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said none of this year’s crop of candidates has made much of an impression, despite spending millions on television ads.

“They don’t have oversize personalities, so the level of motivation is not particularly high,” says Schnur. “You will see a mayor’s race that is not making a dent on the voters. You have to feel bad for them. They have debated 40 times. It is like watching a very long and detailed spelling bee. When Villaraigosa ran for mayor, the field was made up of a better-known set of people.”

“The race is overly unique for not being unique,” adds Frank Gilliam, dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “It will be interesting to see what the voter turnout will be. I don’t know how low, but it will be low.”

Unless a candidate breaks 50 percent Tuesday, the two top contenders will face off May 21. “The expectations are it is Greuel and Garcetti in the runoff,” says Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School. “It is their ability to raise money, get endorsements, and garner independent expenditures on their behalf. They’re gathering the lion’s share of both.”

Garcetti, a Navy reservist and Rhodes scholar who served as council president between 2006 and 2012, is running as “a big-picture visionary,” says USC’s Schnur. His pitch is “I am going to create jobs and get the city moving,” adds Levinson.

The 42-year-old District 13 councilman is perhaps the best-known candidate because of the name he shares with his father, former Los Angeles district attorney Gil Garcetti, who oversaw the prosecution of O.J. Simpson in the double murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. The junior Garcetti also generated a bit of buzz when he appeared on two episodes of TNT’s drama The Closer—as Mayor Ramon Quintero—and when Salma Hayek and Will Ferrell posted YouTube videos endorsing him. In his very funny endorsement, the former SNL star said he wanted Garcetti to be mayor because it would be a better life for his “three children and four illegitimate children to grow up in.” He promised free waffles every Tuesday morning if his friend “E-Squared” won the election, but took it back after someone behind the camera told him he couldn’t do that.

If the polling holds up, he’ll face off against 51-year-old city controller Greuel, who’s aiming to become the city’s first woman mayor. Her campaign has been backed by some of the biggest unions in the city, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Greuel, who worked with the Clinton administration and DreamWorks before she became a Los Angeles councilwoman from 2002 to 2009, serving portions of the San Fernando Valley, has focused her campaign on cracking down on government waste, building a stronger economy, public transportation, and improved schools. A lot of her campaign dollars have gone toward television ads throwing mud at her competitors.

Trailing by about 10 points and hoping to close the gap on Greuel and Garcetti are Ninth District City Councilwoman Jan Perry and the lone Republican in the field, former assistant federal prosecutor and talk-show host (though not at the same time) Kevin James, who if elected would be the city’s first openly gay mayor.

Perry, whom the Downtown News called “the best, most effective and forward-thinking council rep Downtown Los Angeles has ever seen,” is closely allied with developers and is backed by several high-profile names, including Rep. Maxine Waters and Councilman and former Los Angeles police chief Bernard Parks.

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“Her connections with the business community are probably better than any of the candidates’,” says Levinson.

Although Perry has been called a champion for local business interests, supported dozens of housing projects in the downtown core that led to a steady flow of jobs, and did more for Skid Row residents than any councilperson before her has done, she has had difficulty raising money and has been battered by attack ads from Greuel over long-ago financial problems. Perry admitted that she filed bankruptcy twice 20 years ago, but blamed the bulk of the problem on her former husband’s law practice.

“She has been fairly anemic in terms of fundraising,” said Levinson. “The name of the game in politics is fundraising prowess, and she hasn’t been able to match Greuel and Garcetti.”

James, in the meantime, has been called plenty of things over the years, but boring isn’t one of them. A recent television ad made headlines by showing two actors digging a shallow grave in the dark of night and burying a cloth-wrapped corpse in it, as the narrator accused three of James’ rivals of corruption and knowing where the (proverbial) bodies have been buried at city hall.

“He is the archetype of the outside candidate,” says Levinson. “The ad screams, ‘I want to go viral.’”

While James has had trouble raising money in the heavily Democratic city, he’s benefited from over $600,000 spent on his behalf by the Better Way L.A. Committee, which was started by Republican consultant Fred Davis, with generous donations by right-wing Texas billionaire Harold Simmons.

“James has made a little bit of noise,” says Gilliam. “The only reason he is in the conversation is because he is being funded by outside, independent money. But it is not enough to really do anything ultimately for him.”