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Wendy Greuel And Eric Garcetti Have The Same Position On Pensions; So What's This Fight About?

Wendy Greuel and her union supporters
Wendy Greuel and her union supporters

When Wendy Greuel got the endorsement of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, it was quickly chalked up to her objections to pension cuts. Since then, there has been talk that she wanted to renegotiate those cuts; or maybe she didn't.


The truth, however, is that Greuel and her opponent, Eric Garcetti, have essentially the same position on pensions. So what's this all actually about?

First, some background. Back in September, the City Council voted 14-0 to establish a new pension tier for new hires to save the city . The unions cried bloody murder, arguing -- with some justification -- that the city could not unilaterally impose pension cuts without going through collective bargaining. They threatened to sue.

Councilman Eric Garcetti -- who had been running for mayor for a year by then, and was keenly interested in union support -- sought to placate the unions. Joining with the two most pro-labor council members -- Paul Koretz and Richard Alarcon -- Garcetti pushed through a motion compelling the city to sit down with the unions to try to work things out.

"We need to continue to meet and look to find common ground and avoid litigation," Garcetti said at the time.

Those meetings took place, but no amount of sweet reason could persuade the unions to accept a dramatic reduction in benefits for new hires.

Greuel was city controller, and, rather conveniently, did not have to vote. Since then, she has steadfastly refused to say whether she would have voted yes or no on the measure. "It would not have been a yes or no question," Greuel said recently. "I would have suggested to my colleagues that the collective bargaining process be a part of it... I agree with pension reform, but I believe there should be collective bargaining."

It does not take a political scientist to figure out that, in all likelihood, Greuel would have voted for the pension rollback had she been on the city council at the time. If even Koretz and Alarcon voted for it, then Greuel almost certainly would have joined them. (Being intelligent people, the city's union leaders are aware of this.)

But being city controller meant not having to take a position. And that meant Greuel could go before a closed-door meeting of labor leaders last week and attack Garcetti for failing to do collective bargaining on the pension cuts.

Greuel mentioned pensions almost in passing, however. Her main point was that she would be "truthful and fair" with labor, while Garcetti would always be "saying one thing and doing another." Her secondary point was that Garcetti had attacked organized labor during his campaign, calling unions "special interests" and "baggage," and that she would never do that. "I'm gonna stand with labor, not stand up to labor," she memorably said.

Those issues -- not pensions -- were the key arguments she advanced in the labor meeting. And because the meeting was behind closed doors, it's safe to assume Greuel was being candid, not speaking in code or hiding her true agenda.

Greuel's shot at Garcetti on pensions was an opportunistic remark. It turns out that it does not reflect any deep-seated difference with Garcetti about the pension vote. If she truly did have a serious disagreement, then she would pledge to collectively bargain the issue once she becomes mayor. But she is not doing that. Instead, she vows only to sit down with labor in hopes of avoiding litigation -- exactly what Garcetti pledged to do last fall.

So if they have roughly the same position on pensions -- and the unions know this -- then why did they back Greuel? And why haven't union leaders criticized Greuel for supporting the substance of pension reform after getting labor's support? Listening to what union leaders say about it, it sounds like their real problem is that Garcetti vowed in 2011 that the unions had already given up enough. Then, he turned around in 2012 and broke that agreement and voted for additional pension reform. In other words, the concern is that he said one thing and did another.

That, of course, is not how Garcetti would prefer to frame the issue. For him, it's much better to argue that he lost the Federation's endorsement because he took a strong stand on pensions. Note that in the USC Price/L.A. Times poll in February, L.A. voters were asked which cuts they support to close the city budget deficit. Pensions were the top-ranked item -- much more popular than reducing services or laying off firefighters and cops. So it helps Garcetti to claim that he has suffered politically by supporting pension reform -- which is very popular with actual voters.

If you listen carefully, the two campaigns are not claiming to have major disagreements on the policy of pension reform. Both support it (except when Greuel is in a private meeting with labor bosses, anyway). There are some slight differences of emphasis, but on the policy they broadly agree. The difference they actually talk about is about each candidate's character, experience and ability to lead the way to get pension reform done.

The Garcetti campaign argues that Garcetti can get it done because he has already shown that he is capable of doing it. As he often puts it, he stood up when others (i.e. Greuel) didn't want to make the tough choices, and he delivered. The Greuel campaign argues, by contrast, that she has gained the endorsements of labor and business because they see her as an honest broker, and that she will get pension reform done because she (and not Garcetti) has gained their trust.

Garcetti could respond -- though he hasn't yet -- that Greuel won't follow through on pension reform out of loyalty to her labor supporters. If he does, Greuel could reasonably counter that Garcetti sought the very same support.

Whatever anyone thinks of those arguments, that is where the real contrast lies -- on character, experience, leadership ability and loyalty -- not on policy positions.

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