May 30, 2011
In the early positioning in the race to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, most of the political energy is being generated by two candidates who are fighting for long-shot status. Developer Rick Caruso and investment banker Austin Beutner both want to be regarded as the preeminent candidate appealing to Republicans in the race, a mixed blessing in one of the nation's most stalwartly Democratic cities.
Why would anyone want to be a Republican standard-bearer in a city where you could fire a cannon down Broadway at rush hour and not put a single Republican at risk? History suggests that Los Angeles' Democratic tilt means less than it appears when it comes to electing a mayor, which is officially a nonpartisan office.
After the 20-year run of Democrat Tom Bradley ended in 1993, Republican Richard Riordan held office for two terms. The next mayor, James Hahn, was a Democrat, but he defeated Villaraigosa in 2001 by being the more conservative candidate in the race (and only after edging out Republican Steve Soboroff in the first round).
Yes, Villaraigosa won the office four years later, but he defeated a weakened Hahn and succeeded in part by toning down the ideology of his losing first campaign. Villaraigosa's reelection, against the goofy Walter Moore, doesn't count.
So the contest for Republican support matters, and the two leading contenders for it offer the city notably different styles, if not appreciably different programs. Their distinct approaches were on view in recent days, as each addressed a friendly audience and hinted at how they will take to the hustings in the run-up to the March 2013 mayoral election.
Caruso, who developed the Grove and the Americana at Brand shopping centers, dipped his toe in the water at Los Angeles' Town Hall, a business-friendly group inclined to admire his background and vision. Beutner, who is registered as "declines to state" but who is actively seeking Republican support, tested out his ideas at a meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of the Dartmouth Alumni Club. (Beutner and I were at Dartmouth at the same time, but we did not know each other in college.)
Both Beutner and Caruso suggest that the next mayor will need to be principally focused on the economy and jobs, a resonant theme as the region struggles to recover from recession. They each highlight the need to make city government more friendly to business, with only minor differences. Beutner emphasized his work to reduce regulation and lure businesses to Los Angeles while serving, briefly, in the Villaraigosa administration; Caruso advocated phasing out L.A.'s business tax and disparaged the efforts of Villaraigosa and Beutner.
But if the two men are predictably similar in their pro-business slant, they're stylistically very different: Beutner is mild to the point of dull; Caruso is so gruff that he can seem thuggish.
Addressing Town Hall, Caruso openly enjoyed attacking L.A.'s political class. He mocked Villaraigosa for accepting free tickets to sporting events; he questioned whether most members of the City Council were capable of "spelling the word football," much less negotiating effectively for a new stadium; and he described the city's job-creation efforts, which Beutner headed for more than a year, as a failure. LAX, he said, would suit any Third World country, and city government is so inefficient that "it's a joke." At one point he boasted, "I'm making a lot of friends down the street today," prompting a slightly nervous laugh from his well-connected audience.
Beutner too lobs the requisite criticisms of city government, but he does it with more finesse. He speaks of the need for city department heads to coordinate their work, and how the Department of Water and Power should modernize its antiquated billing system. He laments the unfathomably oblique bureaucrats who have long forgotten any sense of initiative, but he doesn't denigrate them in Caruso's fashion.
The differences between the two men are partly temperamental. They also, however, reflect their political positioning. Though Caruso has long experience serving on city commissions, he's running this race as City Hall's tormentor, while Beutner has just wrapped up 18 months of working for the government as the $1-a-year "first deputy mayor."
That puts Beutner in an awkward position. When I asked whether he imagined himself running as heir to Villaraigosa's legacy, he answered with studied caution. He was proud, he said, of the administration's record for the 18 months that he was part of it, but as for what came before — and what might still be to come — that was neither his to claim as achievement or to wear as burden.
As that suggests, Beutner is careful — perhaps to a fault — not to promise too much or criticize too harshly. That will cost him among Villaraigosa's many critics. But he also avoids some of Caruso's pitfalls. He won't frighten away Democrats, and he might even be the rare candidate to win the support of both Riordan and Villaraigosa. (Riordan already has endorsed him; Villaraigosa speaks highly of him.)
Which of these candidates appeals more to voters may turn on what mood the city is in at election time. A surly electorate, convinced that City Hall is a joke, may find a more passionate champion in Caruso; a more optimistic electorate — one that has seen jobs slowly coming back — may regard Beutner's seriousness as an asset.
To actually win the office, either of these candidates must first convince Republicans that he has a chance, and then lure some Democrats to trust him too.
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