The candidates for L.A. mayor held their 423rd** debate last night, at Ward A.M.E. Church in South L.A. The event was feistier than most -- as Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel finally got to have their face-to-face clash over the $160 million in waste she claims to have uncovered.
But it also gave a glimpse of how the candidates will fare with African-American voters, who could play a decisive role in choosing the next mayor.
"It's not gonna be a big surprise if the African-American vote is going to be a swing vote in the runoff," said Bill Carrick, Garcetti's strategist.
Jan Perry, as the only African-American in the race, seems likely to get the lion's share of the black vote in the March 5 primary. But if the polls are to be believed, she is trailing behind Greuel and Garcetti. That could change, but if she fails to make the runoff, the black vote would be up for grabs.
While Garcetti starts with a leg up among Latinos, and Greuel has a base among Valley whites, neither one has an obvious advantage with black voters -- who made up about 15% of the electorate in 2005.
Greuel reminds all audiences of her service in the administration of Mayor Tom Bradley, but it has special resonance in the African-American community. At the opening of her South L.A. office last month, her staff hung a poster-sized photo of a 20-something Greuel smiling alongside Mayor Bradley.
At last night's debate, she also talked about her audit of the city's minority and women-owned business contracting program, and vowed to hold department heads accountable if they did not follow through on commitments to minority-owned firms.
"I think we have an upper hand," said Greuel's strategist, John Shallman. "From 1983 onward, Wendy worked for Tom Bradley. They know her. People know her and respect her."
Garcetti has his own case to make to black voters. At the debate last night, he connected with the crowd with a promise to provide a guaranteed summer job to any youth who wants one, as well as better job training and apprenticeship programs. He also touted his support for the living wage ordinance at the LAX hotels, and vowed to enact a "racial equity agenda." Garcetti and Greuel also each won applause when they vowed to go after the banks for abusive foreclosure practices.
Perry's campaign has been working hard to connect with African-American voters as well. Putting up a big margin there is key to her chances of getting to the runoff. This week, she sent voters a mailer with a picture of a burning cross, which told the story of a racial hate crime from her youth in Ohio.
If she falls short, however, her endorsement could loom very large in the general election. That could help explain why, in a debate on Tuesday night, the candidates took turns heaping praise on Perry.
The moderator, Rabbi David Wolpe, asked each candidate whom they would vote for if they weren't running. Four out of the five said Perry.
Garcetti called her "a person who inspires me," and said it would be a mistake to count her out of the race. Greuel noted that they both are women and called her "a fighter... someone who doesn't take no for an answer." Kevin James lauded her for blowing the whistle on backroom deals.
And as for Perry's choice? She kept everybody guessing by going with Emanuel Pleitez -- the wild card candidate with the longest odds of making the runoff.
Campaign notebook: Continuing the fight that began when Greuel aired a TV commercial touting $160 million she had found in "waste, fraud and abuse," Garcetti turned to Greuel about midway through the debate and told her that "Your numbers don't add up."
Greuel retorted: "My numbers DO add up."
After the debate, Greuel defended the figure at some length to the assembled TV crews. Unfortunately, this is an inherently subjective exercise. Suffice it to say that Greuel has identified some amount of waste, fraud and abuse -- and the number is more than zero and less than $160 million.
But in the arena of campaign messaging, such imprecision won't do. Her strategists decided long ago to settle on a precise figure -- the biggest one they could semi-plausibly defend -- because that's the easiest way to drill the concept into voters' heads.
Whether the correct figure is $90 million or $40 million isn't really the issue. The issue is that no matter what it is, it won't balance the budget. Only raising taxes -- which Greuel and Garcetti oppose -- and trimming wages, benefits or services -- which they also oppose -- will do that.