Perry, a financial underdog, makes race a three-way contest


With the Los Angeles mayoral primary a week away, an aggressive mail campaign by Jan Perry has helped push her into a three-way fight with Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti for two spots in a May runoff.

From the start, Garcetti and Greuel have seen each other as the chief competition. But Perry’s steady attacks via mailers — she lacked the money to advertise heavily on TV — have made her, at the very least, a credible threat to Greuel, the city controller.

The race remains highly fluid, with many voters still largely unfamiliar with the candidates days before the election.


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But the surest sign of Greuel’s concern was her recent decision to target not just Garcetti but also Perry in a mailer accusing both City Council members of misspending public money on travel and other perks.

In a five-way primary, any tactical miscalculation can be costly, so it was noteworthy that Greuel decided to spend money trying to diminish Perry’s appeal.

“Jan has made this a three-person race,” said Parke Skelton, a veteran campaign strategist who is unaligned in the mayoral primary.

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For weeks, Perry has attacked Greuel relentlessly in mail to voters. On Saturday, Perry put out a scathing piece quoting Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky saying that Greuel’s spending plans were “totally impossible without eviscerating other city services.”

Yaroslavsky, who is highly influential on the Westside, answered Monday with a statement saying that Perry had wrongly implied he was no longer neutral in the mayor’s race. None of the top candidates, he said, has “realistically addressed what they would do about the city’s financial challenges.”


Each of the leading contenders is keeping close watch on how lesser-known rivals Kevin James, a former radio talk show host, and Emanuel Pleitez, a former tech executive, might affect the split of votes among the top three. James and Pleitez have suffered from poor fundraising.

By tradition and necessity, the winning formula in a Los Angeles mayor’s race is to build a coalition of two big voter groups — no small task in a city so diverse and geographically vast. Heightening the challenge this year is the lack of personal charisma among Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s would-be successors. None of them started with a large or solid base.

The candidates are targeting some groups more than others. Over the weekend, they paid respects to two of the largest: African Americans in South L.A. and white liberals on the Westside.

Perry, who sees fellow African Americans as her strongest constituency, visited black churches Sunday with her most prized supporter, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). At New Testament Church on West Florence Avenue, Waters told parishioners that Perry was unashamed “to talk about the poor and the disenfranchised and the 35% to 40% of our young men and women who are without jobs.”

Perry, in turn, made an overt, and rare, racial appeal. “Not since Tom Bradley has there been an African American in this seat,” she told worshipers. “I would be the first woman, and I would be the first woman of color.”

Greuel and Garcetti stand little chance of winning the black vote next week. But they too spent Sunday morning at South L.A. churches, a nod to the pivotal role that African Americans would play in a Greuel-Garcetti runoff.


Seated in a pew at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Greuel swayed as a gospel choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Moments later, she stepped to a lectern, where she paid tribute to Bradley, the city’s first black mayor.

“I worked for him for 10 years, dealing with issues that are so important in our communities — housing and economic development,” Greuel told churchgoers.

A few hours later, Garcetti turned his focus to liberals on the Westside, where he touted his Sierra Club support at a campaign stop on the beach. Westside liberals are one of the biggest groups up for grabs in both the March 5 primary and May 21 runoff, regardless of who makes it to the final round.

With candidates battling multiple rivals in the primary and simultaneously positioning themselves for a runoff, the campaign is like “five-dimensional chess,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

“That’s why this thing is so interesting — so many different things are going on,” he said.

Early on, Greuel saw James, a Republican, as a serious competitor for conservative votes in the San Fernando Valley, her home turf. But James, a compelling stage presence at debates, has failed to raise much money. He was counting on independent spending by Republican ad maker Fred Davis to promote his candidacy. Davis, however, has had trouble raising money too, limiting his ads’ reach. Republican donors, Davis said, are deeply demoralized.


“They think they’ve seen the last Republican elected — ever — in California,” he said.

As for Pleitez, he could erode Garcetti’s presumed support among Latinos, but he has raised nowhere near enough money to advertise on the scale that winning candidates typically do.

Perry, though, has waged an efficient mail campaign, sending a carefully sequenced series of brochures to tightly defined pockets of likely voters seen by her strategist as most open to persuasion, with messages calibrated accordingly.

Early on, Perry’s mail appeared to be aimed at replicating former Mayor James K. Hahn’s 2001 coalition of whites in the Valley and African Americans. She introduced herself as “the daughter of civil rights pioneers” in Ohio (her parents were each elected mayor of her hometown near Cleveland). She also outlined her record of promoting the downtown L.A. development boom, along with an agenda of fiscal restraint to resolve the city’s chronic budget troubles.

But Perry has also targeted many Democrats, the dominant force in Los Angeles elections, sending them a series of hit pieces against Greuel. One shows a voter registration form identifying Greuel as a Republican. “Not on Our Side!” the mailer says.

Greuel released statements from state and Los Angeles County Democratic leaders affirming her party credentials and denouncing Perry’s mailer. It did not make clear that Greuel has been a Democrat for almost 21 years. She was a Republican until 1992, when she switched parties months before joining the Clinton administration.

One of the dangers of going after rivals in a multi-candidate primary is that there’s no way to know who will pick up votes stripped from the candidate under attack. It’s a risk that Perry and Garcetti have taken in criticizing Greuel in recent weeks. It’s one that Greuel has also now deemed necessary.


“We don’t take anyone lightly,” said Greuel strategist John Shallman, “which is why we’re responding.”