Over the past few weeks, the race for mayor of Los Angeles has been less a contest of ideas and leadership than it’s been an endorsement roulette, with Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti trotting out their latest pledges of support as evidence of their fitness for the city’s top job.
But does anybody other than the candidates really care? Are there large numbers of voters who will vote for Greuel because Houston Mayor Annise Parker endorsed her or for Garcetti because former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez spoke up for him? I doubt it.
Some endorsements matter, particularly when they surprise or lend heft to a candidate’s arguments. But many do not, in part because they are the result of relationships and connections rather than philosophical or ideological appreciation. Indeed, they often say more about the endorser than the endorsed.
Take Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Greuel. It’s possible that Clinton has carefully scrutinized the issues confronting Los Angeles, sized up the relative merits of the two candidates and concluded that Greuel is notably better equipped than Garcetti to handle those challenges. But it’s more likely that the former president is simply thanking Greuel for having backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in her presidential campaign and for Greuel’s role in the Clinton administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.
And is it possible that Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, regards Garcetti as qualitatively the superior candidate? Sure, but I’m betting that endorsement is more about personal connections and political back-scratching too.
One significant endorsement won’t be coming for either candidate, much to Garcetti’s disappointment. As an early and enthusiastic supporter of then-Sen. Barack Obama at a time when Greuel was backing Hillary Clinton, Garcetti had hoped for a nod from the president. But last week, a White House aide announced that Obama would not pick a favorite, in keeping with his past practice of steering clear of local races between Democrats.
Maybe that was Obama’s entire reason for not endorsing. But staying out of the fray also allowed the president not to have to cross a few of his better-connected supporters: DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg — who are backing Greuel, a former DreamWorks executive. As Parke Skelton, one of California’s most shrewd and successful political consultants, told me last week, that could have “put enough cross-pressure” on Obama to persuade him to sit this one out.
Organizational endorsements are sometimes subject to similar pressures, though again, some are more valued than others. Newspaper support, for instance, can help reach moderate undecideds, especially in races where voters don’t have a great deal of information. Skelton pointed to the strong finish of Ron Galperin in the controller’s race and last year’s election of Jackie Lacey as district attorney as examples of campaigns that benefited from newspaper endorsements (both were Skelton clients). In this race, The Times and La Opinion have backed Garcetti, while the Los Angeles Daily News has endorsed Greuel.
As the mayoral campaign continues, three groups are especially in play: African American, Latinos and Republicans. This weekend, Garcetti announced the endorsements of Council President Herb Wesson and former councilmembers Nate Holden and Rita Walters, all of whom are black and join councilmembers Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks in the Garcetti effort. Greuel has County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Magic Johnson in her camp.
In the contest for Latinos, Garcetti has Councilman Richard Alarcon and Councilman Ed Reyes, while Greuel has Councilman Jose Huizar. Garcetti, as noted, is backed by La Opinion, but Greuel has the support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and its powerful, respected leader, Maria Elena Durazo.
Republicans are similarly split: Former Mayor Richard Riordan, who Skelton noted is popular with Los Angeles voters, supports Greuel, while Kevin James, a Republican who garnered 16% of the mayoral vote in the
first round, supports Garcetti. That split is particularly confusing because Riordan supported James as long as he was in contention. As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows.
There are two conspicuously big-name Los Angeles politicians who have yet to name their favorites, and whose endorsements, if they are forthcoming, could still make a difference. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters has long been influential, especially among African Americans, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is, of course, the first Latino elected to that job in modern times. Both have held their fire so far, and they could still have influence, at least within the demographic groups where they are most popular.
But no matter how they come down, Skelton warns that they may not tilt the ultimate outcome: “Endorsements,” he said, “can be important, but they’re usually not determinative.”