March 11, 2013
There was plenty to grouse about in the first round of the Los Angeles mayor's race. Instead of real discussion of the city's issues, the candidates offered evasive cliches. A deluge of debates reduced almost every serious policy position to a sound bite. The crowded field made it hard to focus on those with a realistic chance of success.
Now, there are just two candidates, and that provides an opportunity for Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti to offer more detailed, thoughtful visions for how they would lead and how they're different from each other.
With that in mind, after talking to many thoughtful political observers in recent days, here's what I'd like to hear from the candidates:
• A plan for gangs and crime. One of the campaign's low points was Greuel's announcement that she'd like to add 2,000 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department over the next seven years. That's not going to happen and she knows it. Her proposal rattled some of her closest supporters, who viewed it as pandering and as undermining her place as the campaign's responsible fiscal watchdog.
Greuel needs to engage on the more serious question: How can Los Angeles continue its historic efforts to reduce crime during a period of what almost certainly will be tight budget constraints? Garcetti skipped a debate on these issues, and he owes the city a plan too. Both need to be realistic about budgets, serious about safety and creative about how to balance the two.
• A plan for the Port of Los Angeles. The biggest economic generator for this city and region is its port. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has tried to enlarge it while also demanding environmental improvements. He's compiled a good record, and his would-be successors should tell us how they'll build on it.
Will they press harder for rail connections to the port? How do they plan to respond to the widening of the Panama Canal, which could mean more competition? How will they balance the desires of harbor residents against such regional needs as managing traffic on the 710 Freeway and air pollution caused by trucks? Garcetti in particular likes to emphasize that communities should control their own destinies. When, if ever, would he be prepared to overrule those communities?
• Evidence of political independence. Here, the onus is on Greuel, but not exclusively. She benefited enormously in the first round from the support of public employee labor unions — notably the Police Protective League and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — which used an independent committee to spend more than $2 million on her behalf. For the runoff, she's added support from the Service Employees International Union's Local 721, which represents 10,000 city employees.
Greuel, one longtime political observer told me, needs a "Sister Souljah moment," a reference to Bill Clinton's famous 1992 speech in which he challenged the hip-hop artist's racial remarks before an audience at Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Clinton's speech convinced some listeners of his willingness to buck his base; Greuel, this observer said, needs to do the same.
Garcetti has his own challenges. His endorsement by United Teachers Los Angeles and his nuanced — some might say calculated — responses to questions involving that union's interests mean that he too will need to demonstrate to what degree union support shapes his view of policy.
• An assessment of Villaraigosa's leadership. This idea, advanced on these pages by former Councilman Mike Woo, among others, is as provocative as it is necessary. Voters deserve to know whether they are electing a leader who will continue the basic policies and approaches of the current mayor, or whether they're voting for a change in more than just personality.
There are perils for the candidates in addressing this question too concretely, as recent polls suggest that city voters are about evenly split in their assessments of Villaraigosa's tenure. But real leaders speak clearly despite political risk. Garcetti and Greuel owe it to voters to say what they think about the outgoing mayor.
Candidates will not commit political suicide just because columnists, or voters, ask them to. But these two candidates have shown a penchant for caution, for soft responses to hard questions. One result is a disillusioned and disengaged electorate, where most voters ignore the campaign and special interests thus have outsized influence. That's bad for the city in the long run. Better to fight out these issues now and let voters choose the future they want.
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