The candidates for mayor of Los Angeles have been at it for more than a year, some much longer than that. Together, they have spent nearly $15 million. They’ve participated in so many debates that they can now address just about any topic — from pension reform to public safety to the quality of schools — and they can do it in exactly one minute, with 30 seconds for rebuttal.
But do we really know what kind of mayor any of the candidates would be?
This is a stronger field than people tend to think. All five of the leading candidates are smart and committed. Three already hold public office and have accomplished some important things while serving; the other two bring new ideas and insights. And they all seem to be driven by the opportunity to lead rather than by the prospect of skimming or doling out jobs and contracts to friends.
Still, as usual, the minutiae of the campaign has tended to swallow up big ideas, leaving instead a pile of cliches that obscure more than they illuminate. Councilman Eric Garcetti insists that he’s delivered “proven results,” and Controller Wendy Greuel imagines she can pay for new programs off the savings of “waste, fraud and abuse.” Councilwoman Jan Perry’s mailers claim she is “always on our side,” while Emanuel Pleitez says he is “ready to be your next mayor.” Kevin James rarely misses an opportunity to remind a voter that he’s “independent,” by which he means that he’s independent of city unions, which don’t support him, but not necessarily of the well-heeled conservatives who have financed a campaign to elect him.
And what do the candidates say about the others? Garcetti wonders why Greuel “has issued more press releases than audits.” Greuel accuses Perry and Garcetti of “covering up their failure to act.” The leading candidates (Perry, Garcetti and Greuel) haven’t mustered much of an attack on Pleitez or James, but that’s only because they think they don’t need to.
It’s no wonder a lot of voters are still undecided.
One reason the campaign has been so banal is that the leading contenders aren’t really all that far apart on the issues. So how should you make up your mind? Here are some suggestions for what qualities to look for in a mayor.
Courage: Jim Hahn fought secession despite having run with strong support in the San Fernando Valley. That was the right thing to do, but he paid for it in 2005 when Valley voters dropped him. That’s political courage, and today’s city exists as it does because of it. No candidate is worth your support if you doubt his or her courage.
Judgment and tenacity: Tom Bradley patiently built modern Los Angeles through a top-notch staff and thoughtful appointees at all levels. He had five terms to do it, a luxury none of these candidates will enjoy, but they could replicate his determination to recruit talented leaders to his causes.
Creativity: Richard Riordan often grew frustrated with the process of governing, but he expanded the idea of his office. He elected school board members, revamped the City Charter, re-equipped the Los Angeles Police Department, even recognized the civic significance of completing Disney Hall. Those efforts were historically important, and not one was part of his formal responsibility. The next mayor should be more than a mayor; he or she should lead.
Personality: Antonio Villaraigosa is a big presence, and though he gets kidded for that, it matters. He can draw attention on a national stage, and that notice can, at times, help his city. This field has no such figure, but once elected, a mayor can sometimes grow in stature. One question every voter should ask: Which of these candidates has that potential?
The next mayor of Los Angeles will have to confront the city’s mounting pension obligations. He or she needs to work with education leaders to produce students who finish school rather than drop out. The next mayor needs to keep the city safe while expanding our notions of what the city can be. The next mayor needs to be brave, independent, visionary and tough.
Which of these candidates can best deliver on those ideals? That’s for you to decide. Tuesday is election day. Vote.