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Wanted: A mayor worthy of L.A.

ElectionsPoliticsHuman InterestChicago City HallEric GarcettiZev YaroslavskyAntonio Villaraigosa

Since my knee replacement surgery less than two weeks ago, I've been popping narcotic painkillers that come with long lists of potential side effects.

Among them are vomiting, hallucinating and impaired thinking.

It is perhaps that third one that made me feel compelled to write about the race for mayor of Los Angeles.

It goes without saying that mayoral politics in Los Angeles is not that closely followed — not like in, say, New York or Chicago, where people pay close attention to what's going on at City Hall and respond with cheers, boos, or calls for grand jury investigations.

You disagree? A nickel says you can name more Lakers than council members. Los Angeles has no shortage of high-topped hipster know-it-alls who can hold forth on the benefits of raw milk or Bikram yoga but don't give a thought to city budget issues until the ref doesn't show for their kid's soccer game at the local rec center.

When it comes to a mayoral election, people tune out because they're too distracted or understandably cynical, or because of the limits of power in that office, or because of the belief that no mayor can have a substantive impact on daily life.

But maybe that's because we haven't had a great mayor in a while.

Dick Riordan's strength, bullying everyone in his path to make things happen, was also his weakness, alienating the City Council whose support he needed to finish the game.

Jim Hahn knew the inner workings and was good down low in the bunker, but he had no feel for the public part of the job, which requires a detectable if not a winning personality.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is neither as horrible as critics contend (he'll leave office with a tidy list of accomplishments) nor as terrific as he believes (the disappointments are many). He's like the flashy but inconsistent halfback who picks up 20 yards before getting thrown for a crushing loss, calls his own press conference after the game, then drives away with a cheerleader.

So what does Los Angeles need next?

That's the $4-million question (an amount already raised by two candidates). And we don't have long before the March 5 election, which will be followed by a May runoff if no candidate musters more than 50% in the first round.

On the ballot will be City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, City Controller Wendy Greuel, entertainment attorney Kevin James and tech company exec Emanuel Pleitez, the only candidate I don't yet know.

I don't think this is a bad field, although it would have been more interesting if Rick Caruso, Zev Yaroslavsky and Austin Beutner had jumped into the jamboree instead of running for the hills.

Some (including James and Pleitez) would argue that the only way to start anew is to tent City Hall, fumigate, and then put Garcetti, Perry and Greuel in public stocks on the front steps. They're co-opted insiders, the thinking goes, having helped create a projected $200-million budget deficit by approving pay and benefit packages the city now can't afford.

True enough, they cut unworkable deals in 2007 with union bosses who had papered them with donations, though each would contend that nobody knew the depth of the coming economic slump.

It's only fair now to ask Greuel how she can be expected to act more responsibly as mayor, particularly after picking up recent support from police and DWP employees. The business-friendly Perry, meanwhile, has her own potential conflicts, and one can wonder whether Garcetti will be able to stand up to the developers or union chiefs who write him checks.

But there's more to each of them than the warts and baggage that come with a career in public office. Experience has its benefits, and the three front-runners are all smart, they have all built connections in Sacramento and Washington in the interest of Los Angeles, and each has done good work.

I don't know anyone, other than perhaps James, who believes the winner is going to be someone other than one of these insiders.

So who are they, and how do we pick which one?

It's a tough job. We need a mayor who can figure out how to fill potholes without a bond measure, but we also need a visionary schemer who marshals the city's great minds and institutions to make Los Angeles a Pacific Rim trend-setter in job development, transportation, healthcare, land use and clean energy.

We need someone who can manage the budget, restore a collective sense of civic pride and know how to make a difference in both Koreatown and El Sereno, but also someone who knows when to pat City Council members on the back and when to kick them in the pants.

In other words, we want a little of Riordan's audacity, but with more transparency; a little of Hahn's focus but with a more rapid pulse; and a little of Villaraigosa's hustle but with fewer photo-ops and junkets.

It's not easy to be mayor of a massive, multicultural city carved up by economic disparity and staggering challenges. But that's precisely why we need each candidate not only to articulate realistic objectives, but to give us a compelling reason to believe in any one of them.

If you get a chance, go take a look-see when the mayoral wannabes traipse through your neighborhood. Ask what they can do to make your neighborhood work better and how their ideas will improve your life.

But also ask them about their larger vision. Get them to define what's different about Los Angeles, what's needed in a mayor, what prepared them for this moment and how they intend to deliver in ways no one before them has.

Los Angeles has had mediocre mayors. It's had decent mayors. Isn't it time we had a great mayor?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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