Garcetti, Greuel locked in tight battle for L.A. mayor’s post

Eric Garcetti held a narrow lead over Wendy Greuel late Tuesday as the two longtime city officials battled each other — and voter apathy — in the race to become the 42nd mayor of Los Angeles.

With more than half the vote still uncounted, the contest remained too close to call. Greuel, addressing supporters at a downtown club, said she expected the election to go into “overtime.” Garcetti, speaking just before midnight, told supporters in Hollywood, “The results aren’t all in, but this is shaping up to be a great night.”


Garcetti, a councilman, and Greuel, the city controller, worked diligently to set themselves apart on the issues, but it appeared that as many as three of four Angelenos did not bother to vote for their next mayor. Even the prospect of potential historic breakthroughs—Greuel would be the first woman to lead the city and Garcetti the first elected Jewish mayor — did not ignite much enthusiasm.

The winner will succeed Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Latino mayor in modern times, who has served the maximum of two terms and leaves office June 30.

The onetime City Council allies, both raised in the San Fernando Valley, were vying to be the leader of a city of 3.8 million people that has only recently shown signs of lifting itself out of a five-year economic mire — one that triggered perennial budget deficits, layoffs and cuts in basic services like street paving and tree trimming.

At $33 million, the mayoral campaign was the most expensive in city history.

After pushing past six other candidates in the March primary, the two finalists, particularly Greuel, leaned on large, unregulated campaigns by outside groups. Spending by city employee unions on behalf of Greuel became a central issue in the race.

The flood of money and advertising largely went toward tearing down the two contenders, alienating many Angelenos who hadn’t already been left cold. Tuesday’s final turnout remained unknown because roughly 20% of ballots — mail-in votes that arrived late or were hand-delivered to the polls — will not be counted until after election day.

Money not only failed to buy much love, it inspired a fair amount of voter enmity. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gave $2 million that helped power television ads in which former President Bill Clinton strongly backed Greuel; she had served in his Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the money also caused some voters to see her as too beholden to the union, which represents workers at the Department of Water and Power. The utility is unpopular among some voters for its high salaries, averaging more than $100,000 per employee, and for bills that inevitably climb higher during hot summer months.

Ian Buda and his wife, Susan, said outside their Encino polling place that they voted for Garcetti because of Greuel’s DWP ties.

“The DWP was a big factor. When you get that much money from someone, they expect something in return,” Buda, 66, said Tuesday. “And that something in return is going to be reflected on our next bill, or the one after that.”

Although some polls had shown Greuel struggling to rally women to her cause, that wasn’t true of Sophia Reyes of Echo Park. “I voted for the woman, for Wendy,” said Reyes, 59. “We want a change, a real change. We don’t need a pretty face. Women have more ideas.”

Garcetti, 42, has spent three terms representing a district that includes Hollywood and Silver Lake, where he lives — a public career he began shortly after his father, Gil, lost in his bid for a third term as Los Angeles County district attorney.

As a councilman, the Spanish-speaking Garcetti prided himself on being a conciliator who listened to every voice at the table. That amiable profile helped him to be elected president of the 15-member council but also inspired charges that he could be too malleable, not always following through on promises.

Yet as city budget deficits in recent years spiraled into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Garcetti was at the center of negotiations to balance the books. He helped persuade his council colleagues to agree to cutbacks, including reducing the city workforce, raising the retirement age for future civilian workers from 55 to 65 and increasing the amount employees pay toward pensions and healthcare.

Although Garcetti had a well-known political name, he expanded his resume by winning a Rhodes Scholarship and later teaching international affairs at USC and Occidental College. He later joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and won’t conclude an eight-year stint until later this year.

Greuel, a 51-year-old former City Council member and one-time political operative at DreamWorks SKG, said she wanted to bring more jobs to Los Angeles, help bolster the public schools and impose financial discipline.

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and now living in Studio City, Greuel served as both student body president and a cheerleader at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills. The yearbook named her both “Most Likely to Change the World” and “Most Likely to be U.S. President.”

Her family ran a building supply store and adhered to Republican politics.

Greuel joined a youth leadership group that introduced her to the politics of City Hall and the wider world and parlayed that, after graduation from UCLA, into a job with Mayor Tom Bradley’s office.

While working on housing and other community projects, like the after-school program “L.A.'s Best,” Greuel came to believe in the power of the government to improve people’s lives. After leaving the mayor’s office, she worked for HUD during the Clinton administration.

The two finalists campaigned for almost two years and began lining up supporters even before that. They emerged as favorites after three other potentially powerful contenders pulled out.

Shopping mall developer Rick Caruso said he didn’t have time for the race. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he was ready for a break after nearly four decades in public life. And former deputy mayor and businessman Austin Beutner said he did not want to take time away from his family.

That left Greuel and Garcetti to contend with three other serious but underfunded contenders — Republican radio host and attorney Kevin James, Councilwoman Jan Perry and technology executive Emanuel Pleitez.

James and Pleitez ran as opponents of the status quo at City Hall, but they didn’t have the financing or political resumes to break through with voters.

Perry, despite a base of black voters in South Los Angeles, could not gain enough traction in other parts of the city.

Garcetti bested Greuel by four percentage points in the March 5 vote, as both moved ahead to Tuesday’s runoff.

The city controller had hoped to position herself as the tough fiscal watchdog.

She claimed to have rooted out $160 million in “waste, fraud and abuse” in city government — money she said could help close the budget gap and restore services.

But the media questioned how much of that money really was recoverable. A Times story noted that one of the major purported savings was merely a Greuel promise to move $24.7 million from one account to another.

Polls showed that a bigger problem was Greuel’s link to the DWP union.

In both debates and in his TV ads, Garcetti hammered home the notion that the controller would be unable to say “no” to union workers who already earned more than their counterparts in other utilities and other city departments.

Greuel countered that Garcetti had approved DWP wage and benefit increases and had traveled at the expense of the utility.

A measure of the apathy gripping many voters came at a polling place on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.

After voting for Garcetti on Tuesday, Ganesh Gunasekaran said an elderly man looked at his “I Voted” sticker and asked: “Is that for a real election? Or some school thing?”

Times staff writers Frank Shyong and Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.