I can't say for sure whether Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will run for mayor in 2013. I don't even know with certainty whether he's already made up his mind and is just stringing the rest of us along. What I can tell you without any question, though, is that he's enjoying being asked.
Before a well-connected group at the Palm last week, Yaroslavsky managed the neat trick of simultaneously insisting that he's still undecided and laying out the campaign he would wage if he jumped into the race. The supervisor, interviewed by KCAL-TV Channel 9's Dave Bryan at the Current Affairs Forum, a luncheon program hosted by public affairs consultant Emma Schafer, insisted that even as he's let one self-imposed deadline after another for deciding slip by, he's inching toward a commitment.
Is he running? It's a question, he said, "that I get asked more than 'How are you?'" Bryan pressed, and Yaroslavsky feinted again and again. Yes, he'd promised to make his decision by the end of the year, but, he mugged, he hadn't promised to tell anyone what that decision was. The crowd laughed with the appreciation of insiders.
It may be smart politics, but the act is getting to be exasperating.
The supervisor has famously waffled before, suggesting he might run for mayor and then pulling back. And that seems to be the part of the campaign he likes best: listening to his supporters tell him how he'd be the perfect mayor, without having to do the hard work of raising money and campaigning, or taking abuse from the other candidates.
Yaroslavsky wears one of the two big shoes left to drop in the Los Angeles mayor's race. The other belongs to mall developer Rick Caruso, who has spent recent weeks aiming at another target, the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that's a long shot too, and there's no sign that Caruso's flirtation with the Dodgers will take him out of politics. No one has ever accused Caruso of lacking ambition, and he's now pursuing these two ambitious goals on parallel tracks. It's hard to imagine him owning the city's signature sports team and being mayor too, but Caruso doesn't have to choose yet.
He has money, and Yaroslavsky has name recognition. Both are milking it.
While Caruso keeps his name in the news with the Dodgers, Yaroslavsky is the object of political insider speculation. He's one of the region's longest-serving and most recognizable public figures, universally known by his first name. He's also smart and, more important, shrewd, though he sometimes employs those gifts to avoid accountability. At the forum lunch, for instance, he delivered a withering attack on the embattled former manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum. But when Bryan asked whether he didn't have some responsibility as a member of the commission overseeing that entity, the supervisor deflected: "We were the victims of a criminal conspiracy."
If he were to enter the race, Yaroslavsky would alter it immediately. City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilmember Eric Garcetti would be first to feel the pressure, as both rely on support that Yaroslavsky would draw on — liberals; Valley, Westside and Hollywood residents; Jews. Garcetti is probably stronger among Latinos, and Greuel would benefit from the support of women, but many of their backers would jump to Yaroslavsky if he made it official. (Councilmember Jan Perry would probably not feel much of an effect, nor would Kevin James, a radio personality waging a quixotic bid as a gay Republican without a personal fortune or government experience.)
But how would Yaroslavsky run? That too was evident as he fielded questions over lunch, passing on the chicken and opting for fresh berries. Caruso and businessman Austin Beutner, who worked for a time as a deputy to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are angling for the outsider mantle (along with James), while the rest of the field runs on its City Hall know-how. Yaroslavsky's looking for both.
The county, Yaroslavsky stressed, has managed its way through the recent budget troubles without laying off a single worker or demanding a single furlough. That's a commendable record and notably in contrast to the city, where fees have gone up and workers have been dropped. Yaroslavsky's provocative question, in the nature of a campaign slogan: "Where did all the money go?" His campaign, then: Yaroslavsky is the insider who knows city government but who has stood outside its current difficulties and thus is free to disparage those in charge. He's prudent where the current mayor has been profligate. At least, that's his message.
Mind you, the county also runs a jail in perpetual crisis, a Probation Department on the verge of a federal takeover and a foster-care system that resists public oversight even as it racks up victims with alarming speed. The supervisors bicker — most recently over reapportionment and the role of the county chief executive — while the problems of this county's poorest and most desperate residents grow more dire.
Those are all things Yaroslavsky will have to address if he decides to run, which he'll have to do soon. For now, though, he is imagining his moment.
Jim Newton's column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.