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Newton: Decision time for L.A.

As the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles has played out over the last two years, the complaints I've heard most often are that none of the candidates has reached for big ideas, that the field has lacked big personalities and that the two finalists are hard to distinguish from each other. There's some truth to each of those, but with the campaign concluding Tuesday, it's also worth noting that all of them also are overstated.

Start with the personalities. Neither Controller Wendy Greuel nor Councilman Eric Garcetti is the commanding figure that many would like to see in a mayor. But both are smart, dedicated, fundamentally honest public servants.

Moreover, both have devoted much of their lives to improving Los Angeles and have records of genuine achievement: issues confronted, projects shepherded, audits performed.

ENDORSEMENTS: Los Angeles City Elections 2013

No, they don't bring to mind the magnetic Antonio Villaraigosa or the towering Tom Bradley or the charming, sometimes eccentric Richard Riordan, or even the earnest, surprisingly brave James Hahn. But those mayors didn't arrive with the stature they later enjoyed. They accumulated it over the course of their terms. A year from now, the winner of this week's mayoral race will feel like a mayor. The office will enlarge the winner. It generally does.

Regarding the dearth of big ideas, there's again some merit to the criticism. Despite a long campaign and scores of debates, neither Garcetti nor Greuel has presented a real plan for balancing the city budget. How much will employees be asked to contribute toward their pensions or healthcare? Are new sources of revenue needed?

And what about the L.A. of the future: What would it look like at the end of a Garcetti or Greuel mayoralty? Again, neither 50-some debates nor hundreds of community meetings, mailers and TV ads produced evidence of a grand vision.

As one considers the candidates' vagueness in those and other areas, though, it's important to recognize another recurring phenomenon of Los Angeles politics: Most successful mayoral candidates run not only against their opponents in the race but also against their immediate predecessor, at least tacitly.

Riordan came to office as an outsider intent on reinvigorating a government that, by the end of Bradley's long reign, seemed weak and ineffective. The 1992 riots highlighted the peril of Bradley's decline, and Riordan seemed an antidote — "tough enough to turn L.A. around," as his slogan had it. After eight years as mayor, Riordan had succeeded with big projects — enlargement of the LAPD, completion of Disney Hall, election of new school board members, enactment of a new charter — but he was also embroiled in conflicts with the City Council and frustrated by the constraints of working within city government.

City Atty. Hahn, a second-generation politician and veteran of Los Angeles government, offered the reassuring skills of an insider. But by the end of his first term, Hahn — who staved off San Fernando Valley secession and dumped LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks — nevertheless struck many voters as a dull, small-issue technocrat. Enter Villaraigosa, with charisma to burn and no shortage of grandiose ideas.

Today, the gap between Villaraigosa's big ideas — taking over the school district, planting a million trees — and his more modest achievements has worn out a lot of voters, including those who supported him most fervently. That's not entirely fair. He will leave office with significant accomplishments — a reenvisioned transportation agenda, a historic decline in crime, a more environmentally conscious Department of Water and Power, the fashioning of a new role for a mayor in public education — but his failure to fulfill his early promise has given big ideas a bad name. Partly as a result, Garcetti and Greuel have played small ball and emphasized their attention to detail.

Finally, there is the question of whether Garcetti and Greuel are really that different from each other. If not, some have asked, why does it matter which one wins?

In fact, they are different, not so much in terms of policy as in leadership and style. And that too is a reflection of the contours of the office they're seeking.

Consider, for example, the experiences of Riordan and Villaraigosa. One was a venture capitalist and multimillionaire, the other a former labor organizer, but they compiled records that are in many ways similar. Both made big strides in public safety, and both insisted that a mayor, despite the lack of formal authority over schools, nevertheless needed to help shape this city's education system. Both sought to make the city more accommodating to business, particularly small business, and both worked to stimulate job growth.

The lesson: Los Angeles mayors are fundamentally problem solvers, not ideological champions. There is no Republican way to pick up trash, nor is there a specifically Democratic approach to policing or potholes. Mayors of all political stripes exist to make life better for residents, or at least to try to.

Both candidates this time have real strengths, but they are far from identical people. Garcetti would, I think, be a more creative and daring leader, willing to try new things in areas such as technology and community organization. Greuel would be a more reliable mayor, a solid, dependable steward of the government and a determined advocate for residents.

Both would struggle to please their backers, though Greuel may have the tougher job there, as her coalition contains irreconcilable elements — she supports a proposed increase in the minimum wage for some hotel workers, for instance, which endears her to their union, but she also has run with the support of the Chamber of Commerce, which will fight that idea when the time comes.

On Tuesday, voters will have to choose between two promising leaders who would be quite different mayors. Both have run small campaigns, but one is about to inherit a big job. And judging by the past, he or she will grow into it.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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