Despite dozens of debates across the city and record-breaking spending on television ads and a torrent of mailers, Los Angeles voters head to the polls Tuesday with few specifics about how the city’s next mayor and City Council would fix City Hall’s chronic financial problems.
The election to replace termed-out Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and select a city attorney, city controller, and eight City Council members comes against a backdrop of uncertainty about the level of services the nation’s second-largest city will be able to deliver in coming years. The leadership turnover is the most sweeping since term limits took effect in 2001.
Voters are evenly divided on a tax increase measure that some city leaders are counting on to generate $1 billion over the next five years and help close the city’s budget shortfall.
All the top mayoral candidates oppose the tax increase; and the two leading contenders — City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti — argue that their track records show they can make the decisions needed to balance the budget.
However, neither has outlined detailed financial plans to address chronic spending problems that have pushed the city toward insolvency, including rising employee pension costs. Rather, the final weeks of the primary election campaign became a contentious battle between onetime allies Greuel, Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry.
Former investment banker Austin Beutner, who served as first deputy mayor to Villaraigosa and made a brief run for City Hall’s top job, said there has been “a lack of accountability all around as to what they’ve promised.”
“Right now, they are running around offering ice cream to everybody, and nobody wants to talk about the vegetables,” said Beutner, who withdrew from the race last year. “We can’t afford it all, so as a community don’t we owe it to ourselves — and shouldn’t we be having an honest conversation about what our priorities really are?”
Most eyes are on the mayor’s race and the tax increase, which if approved would boost the city’s sales tax rate to 9.5%, one of the highest in the state. Backers, led by Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and City Council President Herb Wesson, say that after years of service cutbacks tied partly to the economic slump the city needs more revenue to protect public safety.
In addition to the City Hall contests, voters will choose three members of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education and three members of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.
Independent interests have spent nearly $5 million to influence the school board races, with $1 million contributed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a political action committee supporting candidates backed by Villaraigosa. The outcome could affect the direction of reform in the district.
If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in Tuesday’s contests, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff in May. Los Angeles city polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, 33 cities also are holding local elections.
By far the highest profile contest in the region has been the Los Angeles mayor’s race, where more than $19 million has been spent on television and radio ads, campaign mailers and consultants. Expenditures by committees not controlled by the candidates already have topped $4.8 million in city races, shattering the $4.3-million record previously set in 2005 for the entire primary and runoff campaigns.
The candidates crisscrossed the city Monday trying to win over undecided voters and boost turnout among their supporters. Greuel began before dawn walking through the stalls of the city’s produce market downtown as forklifts whizzed past her carrying boxes of mangoes, limes and strawberries.
Greuel and her allies came under fire Monday for radio and Web ads questioning Perry’s fiscal competence because she once filed for bankruptcy. The California Chapter of the National Organization for Women, which endorsed Garcetti, called the attacks “outrageous and offensive” on Monday, noting that the issues are related to her ex-husband’s law practice.
Patty Bellasalma, the group’s president, released a letter to Greuel saying it was “especially inexcusable that such an attack has come from another woman candidate.”
Garcetti spent his last day on a “whistle-stop” tour on the subway. He sided with Perry, saying he was “alarmed at the personal nature” of the attacks
Attorney Kevin James, the only Republican in the race, got a last-minute boost from former Mayor Richard Riordan, who joined James at the Original Farmers Market to shake hands with the lunchtime crowd. Riordan said James is “the only one running who will keep us out of bankruptcy.”
Other candidates haven’t honestly addressed the city’s fiscal problems, he said.
But James was also accused of playing loose with the facts by a fellow Republican, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. James sent out a fundraising plea Monday purportedly from Antonovich that touted James’ candidacy and criticized Greuel. Antonovich demanded a retraction, saying that he never made the comments attributed to him. James’ campaign manager apologized for the mistake.
Turnout by the 1.8 million registered voters in the city is expected by some political observers to be below the 34% seen in 2005, when Villaraigosa won office to become Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in modern times. The city clerk has issued 663,065 vote-by-mail ballots — about a fifth had been returned by Monday .
The median Los Angeles turnout is 26%, compared to 48% in Chicago, 44% in Philadelphia and 41% in San Francisco, according to a 2007 study by a University of Michigan professor.
“Unlike other big cities… where people eat, live and breathe politics, they don’t here,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant. He recalled living in Chicago for a year while working on a Senate race. “You go down to the bar at night, and everyone’s talking about what the City Council did the Tuesday before.”
“That doesn’t happen here. Most people don’t even know who their City Council person is, much less what they did.”
Times staff writers Howard Blume, Jessica Garrison, Kate Linthicum, Jean Merl, James Rainey and David Zahniser contributed to this report.