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Greuel is in good position in mayor’s race

Mayoral candidates Jan Perry, left, Kevin James, Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Emanuel Pleitez debate at Royce Hall on Jan. 28.
(Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

Wendy Greuel’s success in winning support of key city employee unions has enabled her to jump ahead of rivals in TV advertising in the Los Angeles mayor’s race and left her chief opponent, Eric Garcetti, scrambling to slow her momentum.

With voting by mail beginning today, Greuel, the city controller, holds an enviable spot: For nearly a week, she has had the airwaves to herself. In a city where many voters know little or nothing about the eight people vying to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, first impressions will matter.

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Early advertising is a luxury Greuel can afford thanks largely to an independent group of big-money donors preparing to spend heavily on her behalf before the March 5 primary.

INTERACTIVE MAPS: Past L.A. mayoral results

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The donors include Hollywood movie producers Norman Lear and Judd Apatow, but so far most of the group’s cash is coming from the Department of Water and Power employees’ union. The group is not bound by the strict donation and spending caps that constrain candidates’ campaign committees.

Greuel also has won the backing of the city’s police and firefighter unions, two of the most coveted endorsements in a mayoral contest.

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“The firefighters are the single most valuable source of borrowed credibility that any politician can ever dream of, and the police are almost as good,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

FULL COVERAGE: Los Angeles mayor’s race

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Still, the race is very fluid, and Garcetti, a city councilman from Silver Lake, remains well positioned to win a spot in the May 21 runoff.

He is half Mexican and half Jewish, key assets in an election with large Latino and Jewish voting blocs up for grabs. Garcetti has raised slightly more money than Greuel. And in recent days he won the support of the 35,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, which helped get Villaraigosa elected, and the Sierra Club, which has an extensive grassroots following.

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But the surest sign of Garcetti’s concern about Greuel’s strength was his decision last week to go on the attack.

After months of unbroken civility between the two in mayoral forums that even supporters found dull, Garcetti lashed out at Greuel’s ad, calling it a “flim-flam.” The ad says she exposed $160 million in waste and fraud at City Hall and would root it out, using the savings for “job creation, better schools and faster emergency response.”

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Garcetti summoned news cameras to his Studio City campaign headquarters, where he told reporters the $160 million “simply doesn’t exist.”

“The centerpiece of her campaign is fraudulent,” said Bill Carrick, Garcetti’s top campaign advisor. “That is a huge problem.”

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Garcetti’s team ties labor’s tilt toward Greuel to Garcetti’s support for laying off city workers and scaling back their health and retirement benefits after the recession caused a sharp drop in tax collections.

Tactically, Garcetti has decided to hold back on early advertising, so he’ll have money to respond to attack ads he expects Greuel or her backers to air in the final run-up to the primary.

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Greuel, whose effort to cast herself as a tough fiscal watchdog is aimed largely at locking down her San Fernando Valley base, answered Garcetti’s attack by accusing him of turning a blind eye to the waste revealed by her audits. John Shallman, her chief strategist, took Garcetti’s attacks as a good sign.

“When someone makes the decision to go negative, it’s not because they’re winning,” he said. “It’s because they’re losing.”

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If the Greuel-Garcetti fight intensifies, the candidate best situated to benefit is Councilwoman Jan Perry.

“Her cause would be helped if you had Garcetti and Greuel going after each other with ball-peen hammers,” said Garry South, an L.A. campaign consultant unaligned in the mayoral race.

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Rancor between Garcetti and Greuel has yet to reach that level, he said, but independent groups like the one led by the DWP workers’ union “tend to get out the meat cleaver” in their advertising.

“I think either of the other candidates would be making a big mistake to assume there’s no way Jan Perry might finish second place in the primary and end up in the runoff,” South said.

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Having raised $1.5 million, less than half that of her top two opponents, Perry can afford little TV advertising. But she has plenty to wage an expansive mail campaign. Over the last few weeks, she has sent mailers introducing herself to thousands of carefully targeted voters. The lone African American in the race, Perry, who is Jewish, has combined biography, stressing her family’s role in fighting for civil rights when she was growing up in Ohio, with pledges of fiscal restraint. Her slogan — “Tough enough to make Los Angeles work again” — plays off a winning campaign theme of former Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican.

The wild cards in the contest continue to be Emanuel Pleitez and Kevin James. Pleitez, 30, a former personal assistant to Villaraigosa and onetime Goldman Sachs financial analyst, has raised his profile in recent weeks as debate sponsors have invited him to participate. He has raised too little money to advertise widely in a city with 1.8 million voters, limiting the reach of his message, which emphasizes improving city services in the most underserved neighborhoods. But in a close contest, Pleitez, who lives in El Sereno, could affect the result, particularly if he draws a respectable share of the expanding Latino vote.

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James, the sole Republican in the field, has spent heavily on high-priced consultants and had just $49,000 cash on hand as of Jan. 19 — a fraction of Pleitez’s $320,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. An entertainment lawyer and former radio talk-show host, James, who is gay, is counting on news coverage of the race to amplify his vows to clean up what he portrays as a corrupt City Hall.

James’ hope of squeezing into a two-way runoff also rests heavily on the help of an independent committee formed by Republican ad man Fred Davis. So far, the committee, bankrolled largely by a Texas billionaire, has collected $700,000, well short of Greuel’s $3.5 million and Garcetti’s $3.6 million.

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Now that voters can begin casting ballots, the top contenders face mounting pressure to draw sharper contrasts with their rivals. For Perry, Garcetti and Greuel, the similar records they built while serving together on the City Council make that task paramount.

“They need to be differentiating themselves in some fashion,” said Parke Skelton, who was a top campaign strategist for Villaraigosa. “The risk is that you don’t give anyone a reason to vote for you.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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