Los Angeles political veteran Zev Yaroslavsky’s decision to forgo next year’s race for mayor leaves a field dominated by City Hall insiders and heightened anxieties among some civic leaders about whether the remaining contenders will aggressively confront the city’s continuing financial crisis.
Yaroslavsky, an L.A. County supervisor from the Westside known for his mastery of budgets and blunt speaking style, announced Thursday that he would leave the campaign to a “new generation of leaders” — dashing the hopes of those who looked to him for a candid conversation about the city’s budget predicament and a different vision for dealing with it.
With Yaroslavsky out, three city elected officials — City Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — lead the pack in the run-up to next March’s election. All are Democrats who have courted L.A.'s powerful public employee unions and recently have come under fire from critics who say they haven’t done enough to reduce steadily growing employee costs.
With the front-runners all known for their caution, the contest now risks becoming a “pabulum race,” said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A.
Unless someone else gets in during the next few months, the field to succeed outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be dominated by Greuel, Garcetti, Perry and former federal prosecutor and radio host Kevin James, who has trailed in fundraising and polls.
Austin Beutner, an investment banker who spent 15 months as the city’s “jobs czar,” had excited some in the business community but dropped his mayoral bid in the spring. And shopping mall developer Rick Caruso has been elusive about his intentions.
Former Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican who is campaigning to cut City Hall pensions, accused Greuel and Garcetti of being “under the total control” of city labor unions and complained that neither Perry nor James, who have reputations for being more fiscally hawkish, have the political support to win.
“The city is in and is going deeper into financial disaster,” Riordan said.
“I think we have to look hard for other candidates. You need somebody who is a strong, tough manager and who is independent of unions and other special interests,” he said.
The current field has pleased city employee unions, which have played an influential role in city elections.
“We think it’s full of strong, experienced candidates who would serve the city well as mayor,” said Ian Thompson of Service Employees International Union, Local 721, which represents 10,000 city employees.
Thompson dismissed the criticism by Riordan, saying the wealthy ex-mayor
represents “the 1% in this city, the richest folks in this city.”
Villaraigosa and the City Council have spent much of the last month trying to wrest concessions on retirement costs from the unions. Another budget shortfall next year may reach $250 million, even after the city has cut services and shed thousands of positions.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana has argued that elected city officials have already made difficult budget decisions. But he has also warned that cuts to public safety services will be inevitable if the officials do not further reduce pension costs and win passage of two tax increases in the upcoming election.
In the middle of that debate came Thursday’s announcement by Yaroslavsky. Long viewed as mayoral material, he was first elected to the City Council in 1975 and launched a campaign against Mayor Tom Bradley in 1989 before pulling the plug months later.
His lengthy resume, proven fundraising ability and extensive ties to the vote-rich Westside and San Fernando Valley gave him a powerful base and would have made him a likely candidate to reach a two-way runoff next spring. But Yaroslavsky, 63, decided nearly four decades in public office was enough.
He said he had begun to worry about waiting until he was too old to pursue other interests, such as writing, teaching and traveling.
“I don’t want to have to get up every morning and be ‘on’ every moment until I sleep. I don’t like people looking through my garbage cans for papers. I don’t like the threats that I get. I’ve lived with them and I’ve loved every minute of it ... but after 40 years, I will have had enough.”
Had Yaroslavsky gotten into the race, he would have faced hard questions about his time on the Coliseum Commission, which has been reeling from a series of scandals, and his handling of a contentious redistricting process last year. He also would have been open to accusations that he has been a career politician, campaign experts said.
Still, Perry, Greuel and Garcetti quickly reached out to Yaroslavsky after his announcement.
Though he did not discuss those conversations, he said the winner of next year’s election will need to make the city live within its means — even if that means paying a political price.
“The next mayor has got to say no to their friends or they’re going to be going to Wall Street to explain a bankruptcy,” said Yaroslavsky, who will leave public office in 2014, when he is forced out by term limits.
Garcetti and Greuel did not directly address the complaints from Riordan and others. But Garcetti spokesman Bill Carrick disputed the notion that his client is controlled by unions and pointed out that city employees have already made concessions.
“The economy is causing the financial crisis we’re in,” he said. “It’s the fact that we’re in a national financial crisis. To suggest that this is all labor’s fault is really irresponsible.”
Greuel’s campaign referred questions to former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a key supporter who said she has the leadership skills to tackle the budget crisis.
“She’s like Eisenhower,” Hertzberg said. “People underestimate her.”
Councilwoman Jan Perry has been trying to position herself as an outsider at City Hall.
She praised Yaroslavsky for placing a strong emphasis on fiscal responsibility and said she plans to show voters that she is best qualified to fill the role of financial watchdog in the campaign. “That has been my role since taking office,” she said.
That view was not shared by James, the mayoral contender with no experience in public office. He said Garcetti, Greuel and Perry have had “identical positions” during their political careers.
“It is virtually impossible to differentiate between the three of them,” he said. “That is partially why the city is facing so many crises.”