Over lunch at a downtown hotel last month, the business executives who'd gathered to hear from Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry were keen on talking about the upcoming election — not so much the one on March 8 or even the 2012 presidential race, but the 2013 contest for mayor.
Though the election is two years away, the race officially begins Saturday when potential candidates, including Perry, can file paperwork to raise money. With at least seven Los Angeles heavyweights considering a run to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is boxed out by term limits, the race is drawing comparisons to the 1993 contest, when two dozen candidates lined up to take over from retiring Mayor Tom Bradley.
Raising the odds for an early start, there is no clear frontrunner and no automatic choice for labor groups, the city's dominant political force. So far, the question isn't so much who's in as who isn't.
"It's going to be crowded; it's going to be aggressive," Perry told the guests who gathered for the Current Affairs Forum luncheon at the Wilshire Grand. "It's going to be a dog fight."
Perry, a City Hall veteran who represents downtown and part of South Los Angeles, has put herself in the definite column. City Controller Wendy Greuel, a former executive with the film studio DreamWorks SKG who earned accolades as the "queen of potholes" while representing the San Fernando Valley on the City Council, filed postdated paperwork Friday, laying groundwork for a run.
Council President Eric Garcetti, a Rhodes scholar who considered a career as a composer, is thinking about it, along with his predecessor, Alex Padilla, who became the youngest-ever council president before heading to Sacramento to serve in the state Senate.
Joining them is developer Rick Caruso, the impresario of the Grove and the Americana at Brand shopping developments, who served on the board of the city's utility and on the Police Commission.
Former investment banker Austin Beutner, the first deputy mayor who was recruited by Villaraigosa to make the city more welcoming to business, is also nearing a decision. (Beutner, who co-founded the boutique investment and advisory firm Evercore Partners and works for the city for a $1 a year, is one of two potential candidates believed to have the personal wealth to finance their campaigns. The other is Caruso, and both say they would also raise money).
And rounding out the pack is Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who served on the City Council for nearly two decades starting in 1975. He will lose his seat to term limits in December 2014.
"I have a lot of other things I want to do with my life, and that's the issue for me," Yaroslavsky said last week after speaking at the groundbreaking for the L.A. County High School for the Arts on the campus of Cal State L.A. "If I were to do this, it would be my last stop, and I have to decide whether I want another stop."
The diversity of that potential field means the race is wide open, said political consultant Kerman Maddox, which increases pressure on the candidates to decide early and begin courting groups across the city.
"They will need to slice and dice the voter base to put a coalition together, because there's no clear frontrunner that has a dominant hold on any constituency," said Maddox, who has advised Villaraigosa and before that Bradley. "Money people, activists and other folks, for the most part, are sitting on their hands, paying attention and just watching to see how this thing unravels."
As potential candidates audition consultants and contemplate the challenge of raising millions in increments of $1,000 or less because of city contribution limits, the common thread for many of them is dissatisfaction with how the city has been run during the economic downturn.
After reducing the size of the city work force by several thousand people through a massive early retirement program and several hundred layoffs, the mayor and City Council still face a $350-million deficit in the next fiscal year. Voters across the city are frustrated by traffic, crumbling sidewalks, the nine-year wait for tree trimming and the hazards of dodging potholes. Business interests continue to complain about the byzantine bureaucracy.
With that simmering discontent, the mayor's race will, to some extent, be a referendum on Villaraigosa's two terms in office. And few of the potential candidates are as direct in their criticism of the mayor as Caruso, who considered challenging Villaraigosa in 2009.
"What has he done?" Caruso said of Villaraigosa, making the shape of a goose egg with his hand as he sat in his office overlooking the Grove. A wall in the nearby conference room bore one of his mottos — "Relentless Followup" — in gold lettering. "He's identified issues, but he just hasn't followed through on getting them done."
"We get excited when a supermarket opens up downtown. Wow. That's a pretty low standard," Caruso said. "It's a tough city to live in today."
Garcetti credited Villaraigosa with doing some "really impressive things" but added that "fundamental city issues still have not gotten solved."
"There's not been the follow-through that I'd like to see as an Angeleno, let alone a council member," he said.
Even from within the mayor's office, Beutner has not been shy about pointing out areas where the city has fallen short. But he faults "the culture of the leadership" at City Hall while artfully avoiding taking shots at his boss.
The city's permitting and development process, he told UCLA public policy students this week, takes twice as long as any comparable city's in the country. When he arrived, he said, he found that no one was working on an initiative announced with much fanfare a year and half earlier by Villaraigosa and Garcetti that promised to reduce the number of departments where a builder had to stop from a dozen to two.
Asked what he could show voters as tangible results from his first 13 months, Beutner said policy initiatives he pushed, including a three-year business tax holiday for new firms, have created jobs: "Just in the past two weeks, we've moved a software company to Woodland Hills, we've moved Gensler, a world-class architecture firm to downtown and brought Google to Venice — all because we changed policy," he said in an interview last month.
Rivalries have been stoked in the insular world of City Hall, where the players have gotten to know one another over lengthy policy debates and competing projects, that could add to the friction on the campaign trail.
Some of the elected leaders at City Hall say they have rarely worked with Beutner and still don't have a full understanding of what he does. Beutner, in turn, has not hidden his contempt for members of the City Council. At UCLA last week, he said the council's marathon hearings on a plan to privatize city parking garages were a little like "fiddling while Rome burns."
Perry and Greuel had a prickly relationship when both served on the council. Padilla campaigned against Greuel in 2002 on behalf of his close friend Tony Cardenas in a bitterly fought race that Greuel ultimately won.
A year later, Padilla bumped both Greuel and Perry from prized committee assignments to less desirable posts after Greuel challenged him for the council presidency in 2003 with Perry as one of her backers (Greuel dropped the bid before a vote was taken). And Garcetti wrested the presidency from Padilla in 2005.
Still, at this early stage, many of the potential candidates said they consider one another friends and would welcome a competitive race. Whether he runs or not, Garcetti said, he hopes there will be a "full field of the best Angelenos."
"The city deserves that," he said.