The last televised mayoral debate is tonight on KCAL, which means one more opportunity to point out that the candidates agree with each other on everything. That's been one of the recurring themes of the race: Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel are fundamentally the same.
The problem with that is not that it's wrong. Hell, we've written several versions of that ourselves. The problem is that it's useless. Voters who are trying to make up their minds don't need to know how alike the candidates are. They need to know the differences.
Here then is a user-friendly guide to the five key differences between Greuel and Garcetti. Clip it. Save it. Take it with you to the polls on May 21.
At last Tuesday's education debate, Greuel opened by saying, “There's probably no other subject where my opponent and I differ more than on the issue of education.”
Speaking at Google the other day, Garcetti said, “We do in some ways have to build our way out of problems.” He went on to extol the virtues of community input and said that he wouldn't say yes to everything. But his starting point — building our way out of problems — has gotten him in hot water over the years with neighborhood groups that object to out-of-scale developments. And though Garcetti has a reputation as a peacemaker at the City Council, on development disputes in his district he has been more willing to move forward in spite of vocal opposition. Critics also note that developers have long been a key part of the Garcetti fundraising coalition, though an L.A. Times analysis showed that real estate money has split about evenly in the mayoral race. Greuel, meanwhile, gets a lot of praise from neighborhood leaders in her old Valley district for listening to their concerns and blocking various projects. The most well-known case is the Home Depot in Sunland-Tujunga that she blocked in reaction to community protest, but there were others as well.
In part, their different approach is a reflection of the difference between their districts. Garcetti is proud of bringing vibrancy to once-down-at-heel neighborhoods like Atwater Village. Greuel's constituents were more concerned with preserving their quality of life in the face of some developer's scheme. But those different experiences inform how they would approach planning across the city. Garcetti sees the possibilities of development, and talks about building up “great streets” citywide. He often talks about doing for the whole city what he has done in Silver Lake and Echo Park. Greuel is much less interested in “building our way out of problems,” and more concerned about the problems that too much building can bring.
The contrast here is between “trust” and “independence.” Both are virtuous qualities, but in this case they mean roughly opposite things. Greuel talks a lot about being trustworthy. “I have been the trustworthy person who has said what I'm gonna do and do what I was gonna say,” she said at one recent debate. Her supporters say that once she makes a decision you can depend on her to stick with it. That's a big reason why Greuel has racked up so many of endorsements from those who deal regularly with City Hall, like labor leaders and Chamber of Commerce officials. Garcetti talks about independence. He usually expresses it in the form of a negative comparison — “my opponent is the hand-picked candidate of the downtown power-brokers” — but it can be expressed as a positive thing as well. Garcetti has a reputation for bringing his own ideas to the table, be it something he clipped out of Governing Magazine or an idea that came to him during a Silver Lake stairwalk. Those ideas can be good or bad, but they tend to reflect his techno-progressive ideology. Greuel has an ideology, too, but it is more subdued and it tends not to intrude into her policy-making. She is much more likely to try to gain the trust of an array of stakeholders and broker an agreement among them. The outcome is less important than the process of agreement. Garcetti is more likely to try to push a group of stakeholders toward some more ideological purpose, in the service of an abstracted constituency. From the standpoint of those stakeholders, that makes him less trustworthy. Garcetti also talks about his superior ability to make decisions, while Greuel often struggles to take a position on anything of controversy. That's true enough, but the flip-side is that Garcetti is also more likely to change his mind, or have it changed for him by external pressure.
5. Risk Appetite
This may be the most fundamental difference between a Garcetti and a Greuel mayoralty. Garcetti has recently taken to quoting his friend, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who said in a commencement speech last year that “It is better to have your ship sunk at sea than have it rot in the harbor.” And indeed, Garcetti has had his share of shipwrecks. He lured an electric car company to L.A. with a $1 million relocation package, only to have it go bankrupt. As council president, he approved the “modernization” of billboards, unaware of the storm of protest that would follow. And have you seen those awful condos at Sunset and Alvarado? Of course, he can point to successes too, or he wouldn't have won his district by 34 points in the primary. Greuel, on the other hand, is more risk averse. As a result, her sins are ones of omission. Her disappearing act during the city's budget crisis is a prime example. As controller, she could have had as large a role as she wanted in shaping the public debate about budget cuts. Instead, she avoided the subject as much as possible. In part, her aversion to risk seems to be the legacy of her years working for Tom Bradley, who governed in a very cautious style. That style does not mean that nothing gets done, but that it happens slowly and carefully and only after all the risks have been weighed through careful deliberation. What Greuel chooses to focus on, she will probably achieve. Garcetti is more likely to fail, but also more likely to try harder things.
It's a choice. Hopefully now the choice is a little clearer.