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Wendy Greuel takes on the crowd at Tolliver's

ElectionsPoliticsWendy GreuelEric GarcettiKamala D. HarrisAntonio VillaraigosaBarack Obama

"Hi guys, long time no see," Wendy Greuel said, strolling into Tolliver's barbershop as if she were a regular.

It was her third mayoral campaign visit to the South Los Angeles institution where the haircuts are cheap and the political banter is free. Lawrence Tolliver, the proprietor, gave Greuel a hug and a compliment.

     "I want to make it clear that Wendy Greuel by far is the best-looking candidate for mayor of Los Angeles," Tolliver said. "Unequivocally. I may get in trouble for that," he conceded, referring to President Obama's remark about California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.

     Greuel took it in stride, shook hands with a dozen patrons and began a casual, two-hour chat about community concerns, about herself, and about why she thinks she'd make a better mayor than Eric Garcetti.

Not since Mayor Jim Hahn did the Slauson Shuffle at Tolliver's in 2005 have I seen a politician as comfortable there as Greuel. She didn't do the shuffle, but she settled into one of the barber chairs and held court late Friday afternoon, apologizing for not bringing her 9-year-old son along as she had on her previous visit.

All right, so maybe it's easy to feel comfortable in a shop that has your campaign posters on the wall. But there's a point to be made about the similarities between Hahn and Greuel, even though she didn't do the dance-step Hahn learned as a student at nearby Horace Mann Middle School.

When I started dropping into Tolliver's in 2001, it was to watch patrons break down the pros and cons of mayoral candidates Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. The shop elders liked Hahn, in part because his father, the late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was revered in the African American community.

"The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree," one customer reasoned back then in one of the high-volume political scrums that are as sharp as the scissors at Tolliver's.

Greuel's tree was former Mayor Tom Bradley, another venerated politician at Tolliver's. He was her boss for 10 years, which helps explain why, in a recent poll, Greuel was favored over Garcetti, 55% to 35%, among black voters.

"When I've discussed it with my friends who are into politics, they all say, 'I've known her for a long time and I trust her,'" Tolliver told me. "They never said anything negative about Eric Garcetti, who's also qualified. But they said they've known Wendy longer, and there's a relationship there."

In her back-and-forth with Tolliver's patrons, Greuel didn't say much you haven't heard her say before. But without TV cameras and the limitations of those dreadful and seemingly endless debates, she was expansive and seemed more comfortable in her own skin. She had time to tell stories about the inspiration she took from her mother's determination to exceed expectations, and how she simultaneously juggled career ambitions and motherhood, sometimes taking her son to work with her at City Hall.

The candidate defended herself as well as possible on a tough question from Lisa Carr-King, a financial planner, about her questionable claim of finding $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse as city controller. She said she had a plan to fix streets and sidewalks, and when one patron said he'd heard it all before from other candidates, Greuel reminded them that Nate Holden had gotten the streets fixed when he was a councilman and promised she would fix them as mayor.

And don't worry, she told the barbershop crowd, she'll rein in personnel and retiree costs, even though public employee unions have donated millions on her behalf. A customer named Bill James asked why any mayor should get involved in the schools when we're already paying a superintendent and school board to handle that job, but Greuel said "a world-class city deserves a world-class education system."

To be honest, that may sound pleasant to the ear, but it doesn't mean anything. And if solving all the city's problems and building a new economy is as easy as Greuel and Garcetti make it sound, you have to wonder why they haven't applied the magic during all those years they've both held public office.

But Greuel conceded a mayor's powers are limited in Los Angeles, and the best strategy is one she learned from her former boss.

"Tom Bradley taught me all the things I needed to know about how to govern," she said, telling patrons the trick was figuring out "how do I get my eight votes" from the City Council to push through an agenda.

Carr-King says it means a lot to her that Greuel served as an aide to Bradley and President Clinton, has worked in both a family business and corporate Hollywood, and won public office three times. And is a woman, to boot, in a city run primarily — and not particularly well — by men.

"I'm thrilled to death about that. I mean, I think it's way past time in this city," Carr-King said. "But I like the way she responded, that she's the most qualified candidate and she happens to be a woman."

When I got back from Tolliver's I called up Hahn, and not just to reminisce about his Slauson Shuffle. It was a revelation to see Greuel more relaxed. And I wondered whether a former mayor had ideas for a better way to let voters see candidates in settings that are more natural and less combative than those infernal debates.

Hahn said he thought debates were useful to a point. But he agreed with my idea that we also need a string of televised, probing conversations between a smart moderator and a single candidate, followed the next night by the other candidate.

And why not do it at Tolliver's, with questions from the regulars?

I'd vote for that.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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