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Wendy Greuel's Inside Game 

The controller's union ties could be her biggest advantage in the race for L.A. mayor — or her biggest liability

Thursday, Feb 14 2013
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In large part, that's because Garcetti was president of the City Council during the recession, which meant that he was responsible for laying off city workers. By that time, Greuel had left the council to become city controller, where she had only peripheral involvement in addressing the budget crisis. On one of the rare occasions on which she did weigh in, she wrote a letter arguing against layoffs.

"She was clean on a lot of these fights, where Eric wasn't," says former City Councilman Greig Smith.

But it also has to do with Garcetti's approach to politics. Both clever and ambitious, Garcetti is capable of leaving audiences with the impression that he agrees with them — without, at least in his mind, making a firm commitment.

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The clearest example of this came on June 30, 2010. The city was set to lay off more than 230 employees at midnight. To the council's staunchest labor allies, this was an emergency on par with a natural disaster.

"Tomorrow the earthquake is coming," Councilwoman Janice Hahn said from the council dais. If the layoffs went forward, "It would be a very big tragedy to befall the city of Los Angeles."

Hahn and two allies had prepared an emergency motion to cancel the layoffs. For the motion to pass, the council needed 10 votes to make a finding that new information had come to light since the posting of the agenda.

Hahn argued that new information had, in fact, been revealed in closed session, and asked for a vote to make it part of the public record. Such a motion would require only an eight-vote majority, and Hahn knew she had it.

But then Garcetti spoke up, for the only time during the entire debate. Labor leaders had believed that Garcetti supported them. But he insisted that the council first vote on the findings, which required 10 votes, two more than what Hahn needed to reopen debate.

"It has nothing to do with the substance," he said. "I understand your motivation. It wasn't a bad one. But I believe the first vote is to make the findings."

Garcetti voted for the findings. But the motion got only eight votes — a majority but still two votes shy of the supermajority needed to reopen the issue. The motion failed, and the layoffs went forward.

Garcetti could claim he had voted with labor groups, but on the key question — the parliamentary one — he had torpedoed them. He made the layoffs happen.

The unions were seething. Confident of Garcetti's support, they had told their members the layoffs were dead. Now they had to explain they'd been wrong.

Says one labor leader: "That makes you look really bad in front of the membership."

Wendy Greuel would not have done that. If she supports a position in public, she tends to support it behind the scenes as well. The two top mayoral candidates' conflicting approaches came into sharp relief in 2008, during the fight over Brian D'Arcy's solar plan.

IBEW Local 18 had been dragging its feet on environmental measures for years. But as public sentiment shifted, its leaders did an abrupt about-face, drafting a multibillion-dollar initiative that would give IBEW workers an iron grip on new solar jobs.

In public, both Garcetti and Greuel couldn't have been happier. They were so in sync they practically finished each other's sentences. "Today we have the ability to make history," Garcetti crowed.

"I echo what Mr. Garcetti said," Greuel said.

But there was tension behind the scenes. Environmental groups and other unions complained that D'Arcy was making a power grab, and they were being shut out.

D'Arcy was brutal with his critics.

"The way he talked to me, it was like I was a heretic," says Matt Petersen, of the advocacy group Global Green. "I thought he was going to tackle me and call me all sorts of names in public." [Clarification: The speaker was referring to discussions about an earlier solar power proposal, which took place in 2005.]

The council was pressed for time. It had only a couple of weeks to debate the measure before the deadline to place it on the ballot. But Garcetti had reservations, and asked for independent analysis. That analysis raised red flags about the measure, and it later leaked into the pages of the L.A. Times under the headline "L.A. Solar Plan Called Very Risky."

"Garcetti's office was more skeptical of the process," says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve and a DWP commissioner, who supports Greuel and faults Garcetti for mishandling the issue. "Opening it up had its consequences. One of those consequences was opening up daylight between environmental groups, which Republican opposition groups then exploited."

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