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Wendy Greuel's Inside Game

Wendy Greuel on the campaign trail
Wendy Greuel on the campaign trail
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

Brian D'Arcy has a lot riding on the race for L.A. mayor, which may be why he's staying out of sight. The last time he campaigned openly for something — a solar initiative — it failed, which is sort of amazing, given that solar energy polls at 80 percent. But that's Brian D'Arcy. He can make sunshine controversial.

As head of the IBEW Local 18 for two decades now, D'Arcy represents about 90 percent of the workers at the city's Department of Water and Power. DWP workers are notoriously well-compensated, and their boss is notoriously wired. D'Arcy earns $250,000 a year, according to IBEW tax returns — more than the mayor makes. (Add in benefits, and his compensation climbs to a whopping $324,000.)

D'Arcy led the union through a successful strike in 1993, and since then has been accumulating power and leverage with threats to do it again. He doles out six-figure contributions to his favored candidates. In 2005, he helped to elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who signed a lavish IBEW wage increase as one of his first acts in office.

Yet as the candidates for mayor crisscross the city, the boss of all bosses is lying low. He's not holding press conferences, not returning calls, not trying to bully reporters or impress them with his acid wit. This time around, the stakes are too high.

For one thing, Local 18 has a contract coming up in 2014. The next mayor will be on the other side of the bargaining table.

"Brian wants what he's always wanted — the highest of wages and the best working conditions for his members," says lobbyist Harvey Englander. "I don't think there's any ulterior motive."

But higher wages mean higher utility rates, which are not popular. Wage increases at DWP also put pressure on the city budget, because non-utility unions demand the same salaries as DWP workers. That demand, in fact, led to a costly 2007 contract with municipal workers, which nearly bankrupted the city when the recession hit in 2008.

Beyond the next contract lies the reality that the next mayor will have to transition the DWP to cleaner sources of energy. That transition could go in IBEW's favor or not, depending on a few key decisions: where power sources are located, for one, and whether to contract with private firms.

The top two mayoral contenders, City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, look the same on paper. Both voted for IBEW pay hikes. Their solar plans are identical down to the megawatt. Both have pledged that DWP will continue to own its power projects, instead of contracting out, which means that IBEW workers will continue to have jobs.

But in D'Arcy's eyes, there's no comparison. Greuel can be trusted. Garcetti cannot. D'Arcy's union has already put $250,000 behind Greuel's campaign, with more to come, maybe as much as $2 million.

Greuel has to hope it helps more than it hurts. Since the solar measure was defeated in 2009, D'Arcy has racked up an unblemished record of failure in council elections. Chris Essel. Forescee Hogan-Rowles. Pat McOsker. Thanks to him, all were tagged as City Hall insiders, and all lost.

Greuel is campaigning as a no-nonsense fiscal hawk. But the more IBEW and other unions, such as the Police Protective League, spend to get her elected, the harder it becomes for Greuel to make that case.

D'Arcy's support is by far the most controversial thing about the determinedly uncontroversial Greuel. It's no wonder her opponents have made it one of their key lines of attack.

If she loses the mayor's race, the D'Arcy factor may be largely to blame.

It's 7:45 a.m. at Wendy Greuel's two-story home on a cul-de-sac in Studio City, the start of another long day. There's a plastic playhouse in the front yard, along with a green "Wendy" sign.

The lead story in this morning's L.A. Times is about her — "Mayoral Circle Closes Around Greuel." It details all the Villaraigosa insiders backing her campaign and includes a memorable quote from candidate Kevin James, who says that Greuel will represent "Antonio Villaraigosa's third term."

In the car, Greuel, 51, glances at the headline. She's already read the story online but is surprised at the placement. She rarely speaks ill of anyone, but she is capable of the occasional tart observation. Most are off the record, but this one isn't: "That was a nothing story," she says.

Of the five candidates in the race, only two can plausibly claim to be outsiders: Kevin James, the Republican talk-radio host, and Emanuel Pleitez, the former Goldman Sachs employee who grew up in El Sereno, have scant institutional support.

The rest are all City Hall veterans, though they are compelled to distance themselves from it.

Jan Perry argues that she is no friend to the labor unions that control City Hall, but the three-term councilwoman is in lockstep with the business community. Garcetti's claim to be an outsider, meanwhile, rests to an increasing degree on the fact that most of the big endorsements are going to Greuel. She has the cops, the firefighters, the Assembly speaker and, of course, Brian D'Arcy. But Garcetti is no outsider. His father was district attorney. He has been on the council for a dozen years and was council president for six, which in some ways made him more powerful than the mayor.

Then there's Greuel. She argues she is outside the City Hall power structure because, for the last four years, she's been rooting out waste and inefficiencies from her perch as city controller. But in truth, no one is more of an insider. She practically grew up at City Hall. She went to work for Mayor Tom Bradley when she was 22 and stayed 10 years. Those years left a mark on her leadership style — careful, deliberate, risk-averse — and gave her an appreciation for the nitty-gritty of government.

On his drive to work, Bradley would look for potholes to fill. When Greuel became a councilwoman, she immediately did the same, branding herself "The Pothole Queen."

That back-to-basics approach seems to be what voters are looking for after eight years of a mayor whose lofty promises often turned out to be empty.

On the stump, Greuel frequently quotes the person who told her, "If you just pave Wilshire Boulevard, I'll vote for you for anything." It should be an easy promise to keep — starting in July, the city is set to repave four miles of Wilshire.

In any case, that seems to be a good read of the electoral mood: Don't try to inspire me, just pave my street. The challenge will be in convincing people that Greuel represents something different, not a continuation of the City Hall establishment.

On today's agenda, Greuel has debate prep at campaign headquarters in Van Nuys, then a stop at a firehouse before the day's big event: the opening of her West L.A. campaign office, with Sen. Barbara Boxer. Then a house party in Culver City, endorsement meetings in South L.A. and Encino, then home for dinner before heading out for more.

By this point, Greuel's work ethic is beyond question. She was a newly elected councilwoman when she gave birth to her son, Thomas, in 2003. She returned to City Hall after just 10 days, bringing a nanny to the council office to help care for her newborn. When her son was young, Greuel and her husband, literary agent Dean Schramm, hired two nannies, who worked in shifts.

Greuel's car is a Ford Escape hybrid that used to belong to Mayor Jim Hahn. Her driver today is a handsome, 24-year-old Texan named Jake. He looks like a model, which, it turns out, he is: He did catalog work before getting involved in politics.

Driving for Wendy Greuel means battling traffic 14 hours a day in an effort to keep the boss on schedule. Greuel sits in the passenger seat, dialing supporters, keeping one eye on the clock.

Greuel is not a natural speech-maker, and in debates she seems overly rehearsed. But in small groups, as at the firehouse, she is more at ease. "I piss somebody off every day as controller," she confides to the firefighters.

At the West L.A. event, she gives her speech before introducing Boxer, and the difference in styles is obvious. Boxer is a pro — poised, funny, in total control. By comparison, Greuel seems bound in a straitjacket of clichés. A representative sample: "As we stand here today, we need to talk about the future and to get our economy moving, to get those jobs, and to make sure that we are able to do that. ... We also need to look at our future, which is education."

Afterward, she takes pictures with supporters, holding a fixed smile and somebody's baby. To her right, just out of the camera frame, a large man with a dark jacket and stringy gray hair tries to get her attention.

"The sidewalks are insane to walk on!" he shouts. "It's insane! The curbs are not wheelchair-safe! I've been complaining for four years!" She tries to acknowledge him without messing up the picture, which means not moving her mouth or turning her head.

He is Dale Boren, 68, of San Pedro, a retired millwright. He's also a Greuel supporter. "She's found all the dang corruption and she's reporting it," he says. "The other candidate wants to cover it up. ... We gotta get something different going."

Asked about Villaraigosa, he says, "I'm not too fond of him. All the problems we got — we still got the problems."

At the house party, a guest brings up the L.A. Times article, asking in the politest way possible how to talk to friends about the charge that she represents Villaraigosa's third term.

"It's much ado about nothing," she says. "You can tell them that Wendy's been an independent controller. I've done a lot of audits that don't make the mayor very happy."

Jack Humphreville has been hounding the DWP since 2007, when the utility proposed a rate increase. Since then, he's been banging out editorials lambasting D'Arcy as the "shadowy, public-be-damned business manager of the IBEW."

Humphreville, who writes the L.A. Watchdog blog for CityWatch, has not been impressed with Greuel's performance as controller. Her audits have taken a few shots at the utility's management team, but she has never challenged the IBEW. In fact, some of the criticisms of DWP management in her audits are shared by the union.

"The issue is not what she's done. It's what she hasn't done," Humphreville says. "She hasn't gone out there and raised hell."

Utility customers love to hate the DWP, especially in the Valley, where air-conditioning bills add up quickly. Disgruntled activists have long been convinced that rate hikes went straight into the pockets of Brian D'Arcy's overpaid workers. Humphreville was one of the early proponents of a ratepayer advocate, who could dig into the utility's books.

Those complaints went exactly nowhere until the DWP leadership made a strategic blunder and got into a nasty dispute with the council. After that episode, Garcetti started pushing for a ratepayer advocate, joined by colleagues who had grown frustrated with the difficulty of getting information from utility leadership.

It was easy to see why this was not in D'Arcy's interests. A ratepayer advocate might start to poke around, do salary surveys and conclude that DWP workers were, in fact, overpaid. So the union boss tried to kill it. He went to every council office to lobby against the idea.

Eventually, though, seeing the momentum behind the idea, D'Arcy offered a compromise. He would agree to the ratepayer advocate — if it were housed in the office of Controller Wendy Greuel. If she were running it, he would feel comfortable with it.

Greuel was not a fan of the ratepayer advocate plan, either. As controller, she had the power to audit the DWP. If anyone were to go poking around the department, it should be she, she argued. An advocate outside her office would, inevitably, dilute her power.

"We thought it was a good idea in the controller's office," Greuel says. "I'm the independent fiscal watchdog."

The mayor and council felt otherwise, largely because D'Arcy and Marvin Kropke, his close ally at IBEW Local 11, had spent $200,000 on an independent campaign to support Greuel in 2009.

Garcetti argues that putting the ratepayer advocate under Greuel's control would have "politicized that job."

"If you want an independent voice, it would be tough if you had independent expenditures from the union the ratepayer advocate needs to comment about," Garcetti says.

D'Arcy and Greuel lost that fight: The advocate was made independent. (D'Arcy did not return calls and emails seeking comment.)

Two years later, Fred Pickel, the ratepayer advocate, produced a report finding D'Arcy's workers make 26 percent more than similar workers at other utilities. Pickel also made a previously unspeakable suggestion: a 10 percent cut in labor costs.

That was bad for D'Arcy, but it didn't make Greuel look good, either. In all of her office's audits of the DWP, she had never made an issue of IBEW salaries.

"It was not transparent at all until this study was done," Pickel says. "It's something that needed to be taken into account."

Of course, no one took up Pickel's recommendation. As he toured council offices, he says, he was told, "Don't have high hopes."

Greuel would rather discuss just about anything other than Brian D'Arcy and the IBEW. She won't even mention his name if she can help it. When asked about the issue of IBEW salaries, she gives her practiced response: "That's someone separate and independent that has nothing to do with my campaign."

Pressed further, she says, "I have told him no, believe it or not, on many occasions. ... Whether you are a business leader or a labor leader, what you want in your mayor is someone who's going to be honest and fair, and that's all you can ask for."

The challenge for a labor leader is not getting pro-labor candidates elected. It's keeping them that way once they're in office. Eric Garcetti is as pro-labor as they come, but there's a reason City Hall union leaders are putting their money behind Greuel and not him: They don't feel they can trust him when the chips are down. An SEIU score sheet revealed by the L.A. Daily News and the L.A. Times gave Greuel a 4.5 out of 5 on the issue of collective bargaining — halfway between "pro-worker" and "strongly pro-worker." Garcetti got a 2.

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.

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."

Garcetti's staff met with Greuel's staff to try to work out amendments addressing some of the concerns that had been raised about the solar program. According to Yusef Robb, Garcetti's spokesman, Greuel's staff agreed to make whatever changes they wanted, with one proviso: "Get Chris to agree to it."

Chris Modrzejewski is D'Arcy's lobbyist — meaning that Greuel's staff was not about to agree to any changes opposed by IBEW. In effect, her office was delegating its legislative function to D'Arcy.

Greuel's calendars show Modrzejewski has more access than just about anyone to her office, racking up 16 meetings with Greuel over a three-year span. In addition to being the IBEW lobbyist, he is the strategist behind the IBEW-funded campaign supporting Greuel. His wife is a Greuel fundraiser. Modrzejewski's brother and father are being paid to put up billboards supporting her campaign. Greuel's calendar includes a reminder for Modrzejewksi's birthday. Greuel's office has been known to keep Modrzejewski in the loop on sensitive issues in real time. He is used to getting what he wants.

In this case, he did. Garcetti settled for only cosmetic changes to the union-backed plan, and Measure B was placed on the ballot.

In public, Garcetti was enthusiastic. But he'd been steamrolled. Defending Garcetti's continued support for the measure, one ally says, "That was a tough train to lie down in front of."

He at least had tried — however ineffectively — to wrest some control away from D'Arcy. Greuel didn't see a reason to try. It was left up to the voters to shoot it down, which they did.

It's after 10 p.m. at Monty Bar, a hip locale just west of downtown. Angel Alvarez is at the bar, holding a shot of Jack Daniels, a suit jacket hanging from his pinkie. A few hundred young Latinos have jammed the place for Eric Garcetti's birthday, but the candidate has yet to arrive.

Alvarez has a goatee and says he works in finance, by which he means he does a lot of day-trading with his own money. "I just need a computer, a phone and a TV," he says. "I watch CNBC all day."

His top concern is inflation. As for local issues, he says he wants "a business mayor ... somebody with fiscal discipline." He describes himself as "a strong Garcetti lean" but says he hasn't decided for sure.

"Let him work a little harder," Alvarez says. "You want to give him the raise at the end of the year, not the beginning. Let him earn it."

This morning's paper has another lead story about the race — "TV Ads Giving Greuel the Edge." But nobody in the crowd seems overly concerned about Greuel's union war chest. "That's powerful, but it may not be a good thing," Alvarez says.

Garcetti arrives. He climbs up on the stage and pets the bison head hanging on the wall. He's in an ebullient mood for a guy who did 15 events today. "I'm gazing at a roomful of angels!" he shouts, as cheers go up. The crowd sings a rendition of "Las Mañanitas," the Mexican birthday song, and then Garcetti starts dancing with a plump, 56-year-old janitor.

The typical Angeleno is either a Mexican with a future or an Iowan with a past. Greuel and Garcetti are campaigning in those parallel realities.

Garcetti wants to be the mayor of a polyglot metropolis — a place where all the world's peoples converge to drink craft beer and launch tech startups. Greuel represents the flip side of L.A. — the Midwestern capital full of sensible moms who roll up their sleeves and get things done. Her mother came here from Texas City, Ill., as a 20-year-old divorcee; her paternal grandfather came from outside of Chicago. Eric Garcetti brags of being "doble mestizo" — his forebears include a Russian Jewish clothier and an Italian-born judge who was hanged in the Mexican Revolution. Wendy Greuel is a mixture of northern and downstate Illinois.

Which vision of the city wins out will be determined by an inscrutable function of the public mood and the candidates' ability to tell their story.

It may also come down to how voters feel about union bosses like Brian D'Arcy.

"Would we love to have that [IBEW] money? Sure," says Daniel Tamm, a Garcetti supporter. But not having it has its own advantages, he says. "When [voters] hear a super PAC is behind a candidate, they get the heebie-jeebies."