L.A. Now

Looking for fizz in a flat mayoral contest

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Los Angeles has had its share of so-so mayors, and it'd be nice to have a great one for a change.

Readers agreed, but said they weren't sure there was greatness in the current crop of candidates. And that was before Monday night's televised debate, which bolstered their point. For the most part, the five candidates came off as competent but not compelling. There was no presence, no magic, no star quality.

"What an uninspiring bunch," wrote Peter Weinberger, a Pico-Robertson resident. He was one of several readers I recruited to watch the debate and send along their impressions. "They offered platitudes with nothing of substance.... Their rhetoric was akin to a kid running for sixth-grade class president."

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

"This is the weakest mayoral field in history," Howard Cohen of North Hills wrote.

Ouch. Weakest in history?

Among my posse of campaign-watchers, Weinberger and Cohen offered the most detailed observations after viewing the half-hearted show staged by City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, City Controller Wendy Greuel, former prosecutor Kevin James and Emanuel Pleitez, a former aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Weinberger and Cohen thought Garcetti was the most impressive in the debate, but that wasn't saying much.

As Weinberger put it: "I'm a political junkie who supports Eric Garcetti, and I had to sit myself in an uncomfortable chair just to stay awake."

The tone of the debate was accurately described by The Times as genteel, but come on, they're not running for Rose Parade committee. This is one of the world's great cities, but it's also a work in progress, and the next mayor will take on epic challenges. With five weeks to go before the election, I want tougher questions, better answers and more spark.

As for the tougher questions:

Hey, Eric Garcetti. Congrats on the Salma Hayek endorsement; I didn't know until I watched her video pitch that you were "an amazing dancer." But Cirque du Soleil has now tanked at the Dolby Theatre after you helped deliver a $30-million loan to a partnership set up by the CIM Group, the multibillion-dollar development giant behind the Hollywood and Highland project. Any regrets about that little dance? And even if CIM repays the loan, should we be worried about what kind of deals you might strike with developers as mayor?

Hey, Jan Perry. You helped award $1 million in public funds to a multimillion-dollar Santa Monica architecture firm to move to downtown Los Angeles and supported a $2.5-million handout to Fresh & Easy without demanding living-wage jobs in return. Now Fresh & Easy's owner, a British behemoth, has said it may get out of the supermarket business in the U.S., so what will we have to show for our investment? And why shouldn't we be scared to death about what you might give away as mayor, whether it's to AEG and the NFL or some other billionaire panhandler?

Hey, Kevin James. It's nice to have you poke the other candidates in the eye for their role in digging a financial ditch, in part because of public employee union donations to them. But you're running in one of the most progressive cities in the country with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on your behalf by one of the most conservative political donors in the country. Texas billionaire Harold Simmons called President Obama a socialist and the "most dangerous American alive."

And also, Kevin, as a gay man in a city where we pride ourselves on inclusiveness, what do you think about those millions Simmons gave to anti-gay presidential candidate Rick Perry as well as to Karl Rove's American Crossroads, which has also supported anti-gay candidates?

Hey, Wendy Greuel. If you've really uncovered $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse as city controller — and not everyone finds the figure believable, by the way — how the heck did you miss all that mismanagement during your seven years as a member of the City Council? And what's the deal with your camp insisting on candidate Emanuel Pleitez's participation in the debates? Is it that you were hoping he'd siphon a few votes away from Garcetti, who's Mexican American on his father's side?

My debate watchers weren't all entirely negative. George Martinez of West L.A. thought the debate was a bore but that Greuel came out on top. Francine Oschin of Encino, who once worked as an aide to Councilman Hal Bernson, thought Perry had a sub-par performance but would make the best mayor. And Don Schultz of Van Nuys gave the debate nod to James, even though he's backing Greuel for mayor.

In the last couple of weeks, I've had the feeling that Greuel is beginning to pull away from Garcetti and the others. The unions adore her, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's coterie of supporters seems to be falling in behind her, as pointed out by my colleague David Zahniser.

But is that what L.A. voters really want after general dissatisfaction with the City Hall establishment and continued worries about services getting slashed as employee retirement and healthcare costs grow?

As I see it, Greuel speaks in such vague generalities about so many issues that I have no idea who she is politically, what she believes in, or why she wants to be mayor.

She's got five weeks, and so do the others, to step it up.

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