On Tuesday, Los Angelenos will go to the polls to pick a successor for term-limited Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but the race is likely to go to a runoff on May 21 featuring the top two finishers. The officially-nonpartisan race includes both City Hall veterans and political neophytes, featuring five main candidates: Councilman Eric Garcetti, Controller Wendy Greuel, Councilwoman Jan Perry, attorney Kevin James and former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez.
Garcetti and Greuel have racked up high-profile endorsements, with the councilman earning the backing of the California Federation of Teachers, the Los Angeles Times and La Opinión. Greul received a boost from the city police and fire unions and from Working Californians, which is financed in part by the Department of Water and Power employees' union and has spent heavily on her behalf. Both candidates have received unprecedented backing from Hollywood figures, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. The SEIU, after meeting with the candidates, declined to issue an endorsement in the race.
Garcetti and Greuel also have a significant cash advantage over the rest of the field: According to Feb. 27 filings, Greuel leads all comers with $4.4 million in contributions; Garcetti is not far behind with more than $4.3 million raised. Perry is a distant third, having brought in just under $1.6 million, while James and Pleitez each reported total contributions of less than $500,000. All five candidates have accepted matching funds; Garcetti, Greuel and Perry have received $667,000 each, Pleitez has taken in around $300,000, and James has received just over $250,000.
While Garcetti and Greuel have used their fundraising advantage to air television advertising, uncertainty remains. Perry has relied on targeted mailers to spread her message. Asked whether she finds the city’s budget situation daunting, Perry said, "I find it clarifying -- it's very clear what we need to do collectively and politically. We need to control our labor costs and our employee costs … we need to achieve salary parity between employees over at DWP and the rest of the city."
James, a radio talk-show host who is also the only Republican in the race, has been endorsed by former Mayor Richard Riordan (R), the only Republican to serve as mayor since Norris Poulson. In an interview, James downplayed his party affiliation, explaining that he is offering "nonpartisan, commonsense solutions" to the city's problems. Better Way L.A., a super PAC founded by Republican media consultant Fred Davis and largely funded by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising in support of James, helping to level the financial playing field.
James and Pleitez have sought to use their political inexperience to their advantage, suggesting that as political outsiders, they represent the city's best hope. James described himself as "the only candidate that did not bankrupt the city," while Pleitez said that he is "the only candidate with revenue-producing private sector experience."
In an interview, Pleitez acknowledged the challenges he faces, but maintained that by streamlining his campaign effort and relying upon the aid of friends and relatives, "we are running a $2 million campaign." Pleitez said that his efforts have paid off, increasing his name recognition and helping him to gain traction in the communities he has targeted. He has focused his outreach efforts on underserved Latino communities and recently released a Spanish-language television spot.
Garcetti spoke of his desire to shift the conversation from tax increases and budget cuts toward job creation as a method of solving the city’s fiscal problems. Citing dramatic reductions in the city’s budget deficit during his time on the Council, Garcetti said, "We've basically driven 90 yards down the field and we're in the red zone ready to score, but that doesn’t guarantee a touchdown."
Greuel, who previously served on the City Council, has emphasized her work as controller, frequently citing her discovery of $160 million in "wasteful spending, fraud and abuse" by city government. That figure has been the subject of much skepticism on the part of her opponents, as well as the media, but remains a centerpiece of Greuel’s campaign. "I believe strongly that Los Angeles is at a crossroads about what kind of city we're going to be," said Greuel, "and that it is important to have a tough fiscal watchdog."
Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said in an interview that "none of the five candidates is as charismatic a leader as the current mayor, but the frontrunners have established themselves as the serious and knowledgeable policy experts. So it's a much different type of campaign than we've seen when either Dick Riordan or Villaraigosa's been on the ballot.”
Schnur noted that, as in the presidential primary process, "when the ideological differences are not that extreme, voters end up making their decisions on whom they trust and whom they respect." To that end, "the two frontrunners have been understandably cautious about their messaging" on budgetary issues. Schnur predicts that the candidates who advance to the runoff "will become a lot less risk averse" at that stage.
Schnur, a former aide to then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson notes that Los Angelenos have tended to "veer back and forth" between types of candidates: from the "staid" Tom Bradley to the "flamboyant" Riordan, and from the "serious" James Hahn to the "very large personality" of Villaraigosa. In 2013, Schnur says, "the pendulum is swinging back toward quieter, more serious policy mavens."
Following Villaraigosa’s election in 2005, much was made of the city's demographic shift and the growing influence of Latino voters. Schnur recalls that there was even speculation that the city "would never again have a white mayor," but until Pleitez qualified for matching funds in January, there was no legitimate Latino candidate in the race. Despite the mayor's obvious bully pulpit, the position lacks some of the power wielded by its counterparts in other cities, a fact that has been cited as a deterrent for high-profile Latino politicians such as former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and state Sen. Alex Padilla. Even now, Schnur notes, "there's no obvious home for the Latino vote the way there was with Villaraigosa or the way there might have been with Padilla or Solis."