Sometimes you can spend close to a million dollars on a City Council race and settle nothing. Such was the uncomfortable prospect that greeted Tony Cardenas and Wendy Greuel the morning after Tuesday’s primary in the 2nd District City Council race. Thanks to a spoiler candidate, neither front-runner got more than 50 percent of the vote. So Greuel, an executive and lobbyist with a film-production company, and Cardenas, a state assemblyman, will face off in a March 5 runoff. Together, they could spend another million.
Tuesday‘s vote became an exercise in cruel and expensive time delay because of James ”Jamie“ Cordaro, a low-budget registered Republican in a heavily Democratic district. Cordaro, an electrical contractor, collared 9.67 percent of the vote, easily enough to short-circuit any prospect of outright victory in the nonpartisan election to replace Councilman Joel Wachs, who retired in advance of approaching term limits to head an arts foundation in New York City. Cardenas edged tantalizingly close to a majority with 47.61 percent of the vote, while Greuel got 42.72 percent. About 19 percent of the district’s registered voters cast ballots.
The 2nd District includes much of the east San Fernando Valley, including heavily Latino Arleta and Lake View Terrace, tony foothill neighborhoods, diverse Van Nuys and episodically rustic Tujunga. The winner will help shape city policy on any number of issues, including leadership of the City Council itself. Cardenas is a longtime ally of new council President Alex Padilla. Anti-Padilla forces are openly rooting for Greuel.
So now Cardenas and Greuel go at it again, with Cordaro‘s votes up for grabs. For her part, Greuel could appeal to the Cordaro faithful because her campaign tilted in the direction of Valley ”conservatives“ (political moderates by most standards). Cardenas, on the other hand, has the endorsement of the police and firefighters unions, support that can be influential among those same contested voters. And while Cardenas, a Latino, could benefit from strong ethnic support, he won’t necessarily suffer a concurrent anti-Latino backlash, even though it‘s been only six months since an anti-Latino subtext swayed some voters against unsuccessful mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.
”I don’t think in an area like this you‘ll have many votes against a Latino for being a Latino,“ said Larry Levine, a political consultant who lives in the district but is not working the race. ”Non-Latinos are getting used to having Latinos represent them as public officials. While on the other side, you have an emerging ethnic bloc. The standard cycle for a growing minority group is that it goes from political impotence, to ethnocentricity — voting for fellow Latinos in this case — to a more balanced position. Right now we are entering the second period, where we are seeing the Latino community flex its muscle.“
Some voters who took part in exit interviews reflected such tendencies. ”We expect a Latino to be working for the Latino area,“ said one Latina homeowner who voted in North Hollywood. A retiree, who described himself as liberal, commented, ”We’ve got to have some Latins up there.“
But a Republican homeowner from Valley Village also liked Cardenas. ”He ran an extraordinary campaign. The police and firemen backed him. He seems to be very, very devoted . . . Some of the things [Greuel] said about him weren‘t true — like practically saying he had the Mafia backing him, when it was the Indians.“
As the comment implied, Cardenas ran the more positive campaign, and for good reason. Both his presumed upsides and downsides have the potential to loom large. As a plus, he pointed to an anti-crime bill he pushed for as well as his chairmanship of the powerful Assembly budget committee. But Cardenas also wears the potential albatross of his tireless advocacy for the state’s tribal gambling interests, who‘ve rewarded him with generous (and entirely legal) financial support in past campaigns. Cardenas casts himself as a crusader for Native Americans, but he’s got to overcome what one community activist slyly termed ”the bought-and-paid-for issue.“
As one voter put it, Greuel ”seems like a nice woman who will improve the Valley. Not like that millionaire Cardenas. I got pamphlets talking about his money.“ The comment wasn‘t on point for accuracy — the casino millions don’t actually belong to Cardenas — but it reflected a Greuel campaign theme. Greuel doesn‘t want to overdo it, however, and suffer the Beth Garfield syndrome. Earlier this year, Garfield, a leading candidate in the 4th District, turned off many voters by going negative early and often against her opponents.
Greuel has a positive record to tout — well-regarded service as an aide in Mayor Bradley’s administration and in Clinton‘s Department of Housing and Urban Development. And her recent stint as a lobbyist gives her a resume entry outside of government, which she uses to claim independent-outsider status. That’s a stretch for someone who spent most of her career as a government bureaucrat. But it worked for one North Hollywood homeowner, who decided: ”She‘s a businesswoman, not a politician.“
At times, Greuel has virtually minimized a worthy — dare we say, ”liberal“ — record while also flirting with Valley secessionists. But then, her re-positioning is no more acrobatic than envisioning Cardenas as the champion of the downtrodden, when he’s referring to wealthy tribal leaders who operate lucrative casinos.
All of which prompted one Studio City voter to opt for longshot Cordaro. ”I didn‘t vote for Greuel, because she’s for secession. I heard bad things about Cardenas.“ This voter will pay for his contrariness by getting to hear a lot more between now and March.
Sara Clinehens contributed to this story.