Bicycle advocate Alex Thompson isn't one of those lazy, uninformed Angelenos you might have read about in The New York Times who doesn't vote. In fact, he has already voted, having mailed in his absentee ballot last week.
He left the mayor's section — Eric Garcetti or Wendy Greuel? — blank.
“I just don't believe in making choices like that,” he says, his voice laden with the sort of grimness one has after contracting a stomach virus. “The only positions they differ on are just taken for the purposes of trying to win the race.”
Thompson doesn't see much difference between Greuel and Garcetti, two friendly, intelligent, nonthreatening City Hall functionaries who are both white, pro-union, liberal Democrats. Both have campaigned with a sort of election-season amnesia, ignoring their own records as two of the nation's highest-compensated politicians, instead explaining what they may — or, just as likely, may not — do once elected: balance the budget, pave the streets, fix the sidewalks, achieve a consensus between business and labor, and so on.
The media has been complicit in this conspiracy of forgetfulness as it monotonously covers each promise-filled press conference, debate, talking point, television ad and strategist-on-strategist spat. The campaign at times resembles one of those 1980s sitcom where each episode stood perfectly on its own, without reference to the past.
Maybe that's why, in the March 7 primary, voters emitted a collective “meh.” Voter turnout was 21 percent of those registered — a number that excludes, by the by, a vast population of eligible citizens who've never registered.
The numbers who vote to elect a new Los Angeles mayor on May 21 don't promise to be much higher.
“I don't know that I've ever seen a mayoral election in Los Angeles with so much disinterest,” says Doug Epperhart, a San Pedro community activist and member of the city's Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. “There is no enthusiasm. I had a neighbor say to me, 'The only reason I'm voting for Wendy Greuel is because [City Councilman] Joe Buscaino endorsed Garcetti and I hate Joe Buscaino.”
That perfectly captures what so many feel about two candidates with inoffensive yet less than stellar records who have spent much of the past decade awarding themselves and their colleagues gold stars for modest victories.
South Los Angeles community activist Shawn Simons sums the race up with even more bitterness:
“You've got two assholes who have been in City Hall for a decade, driving our city toward insolvency,” she says. “It's not like they've been saving their good ideas for when they're mayor.”
His opponents, derisively, call him Prince Eric. And there is something rather princely about Eric Garcetti, a former child actor and unabashed idealist who speaks in an almost melodic cadence, and whose father, Gil, was famous as L.A. district attorney thanks in part to the O.J. Simpson trial.
Simons initially was impressed and charmed by Garcetti, who had invited a number of community activists to meet with him. He reminded her of a character on the now-defunct NBC series Heroes.
“And then I started to watch him a little,” Simons says. She started attending more City Council meetings and couldn't help but notice that Garcetti, and most other council members, openly ignored residents who had taken time off work and traveled to City Hall to comment on city proposals. Often, she says, Garcetti and the others rudely yucked it up with each other and staffers.
“You watch them tweet and chat and not spend a second listening to the people who come down there,” Simons says. “You get a real distaste for them.”
One of Garcetti's talents is his ability to be all things to all people. He can size someone up and know exactly the right compliment to offer, the right thing to say, to make the person believe he's on their side.
But that talent has left many critics and activists feeling that Garcetti is a likable phony with a veracity problem. Like Greuel, he has carried water for the widely hated Department of Water and Power, but he has been slicker than Greuel at avoiding political fallout.
In late 2008, Garcetti quietly hid a city report by PA Consulting that warned of the staggering costs of Measure B, a plan to hand unionized DWP workers an exclusive deal installing solar panels on government buildings and parking lots. The report called the plan “extremely risky,” with projected costs in the billions.
While keeping the City Council in the dark, Garcetti convinced them to vote to hurry Measure B onto the ballot. When the Los Angeles Times discovered Garcetti's sly move, it helped fuel an anti-DWP uproar among bloggers, activists and neighborhood councils. Popular outrage scuttled the solar plan at the ballot box in 2009.
Koreatown activist Grace Yoo describes Garcetti like this: “It's, 'I'm your friend, I'm your friend. … Oh, I'm not gonna be your friend in this instance.' ”
Garcetti's successor as City Council president in early 2012 was Herb Wesson, who secretly masterminded the city's redistricting process last fall to punish his enemies, reward his friends and pack his own district with heavy donor potential, all the while claiming the process had been “clean.”
Wesson grabbed a large chunk of Koreatown's bustling bars and restaurants by redrawing the voter boundaries of his own City Council District 10.
Yoo and other activists fought against this slicing and dicing of Koreatown, demanding it be kept whole. That meant placing it all within Garcetti's District 13. When the proposed gerrymander came to light, Koreatown leaders massed to protest at raucous, packed public hearings — and were ignored.
Garcetti, Yoo says, implied that he backed the Koreatown activists, then voted to cut it up. The top political winners of the gerrymander were council members Herb Wesson, Jose Huizar — and Garcetti.
“If he had been straight up, I would have been OK with it,” Yoo says. “Instead he just danced around the issue.”
Garcetti's favorite statistic — that his district has been No. 1 in job growth on his watch — is a bit misleading. In fact, the Wesson-led gerrymander allowed Garcetti's District 13 to swallow up thousands of jobs in surrounding districts — jobs he had nothing to do with.
Garcetti has been preoccupied with unanimity and order, perfecting the ability to put a happy face on things even amidst fiscal crisis. A think tank discovered that, in more than 1,800 City Council votes, the city council behaved like a puppet kingdom, voting unanimously more than 99 percent of the time.
Garcetti insists he didn't prearrange the clone-like votes. But, even setting aside the City Council's many procedural and symbolic votes (like establishing Bob Marley Day, or honoring actor and UCLA football star Mark Harmon's “enviable” career), the astonishing harmony has served to shield much debate from public ears.
Take Proposition R in 2006, which extended term limits for City Council members to 12 years. It was proposed in July 2005 by the Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters, both of which wanted to weaken term limits. In practically no time at all, two weeks after it was proposed, Garcetti — aided by then–council member Greuel — hurried Proposition R onto the ballot.
They attached a big sweetener for voters: promises of “ethics reform” to reduce lobbyist influence at City Hall.
As the Los Angeles Times later discovered, Proposition R was written by Sutton Law Firm, a prominent firm “that represents lobbyists” in L.A. Proposition R's reforms were so weak — lobbyists could no longer give money to politicians but could bundle donations and fund raise instead — that city ethics commissioner Bill Boyarsky slammed it and the L.A. Daily News called it a move by “sleazy, unprincipled politicians.”
“The … ethics reform was meaningless — it was a ruse,” says Greg Nelson, former chief of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. “Words on paper that meant nothing.”
As the Los Angeles Business Journal has reported, $41 million was spent on City Hall lobbyists last year — more than before Proposition R. It is spent by such businesses as Clear Channel and Walmart to convince Garcetti and others to lend them a sympathetic ear.
This week, Garcetti gave Proposition R a rousing defense, arguing that lobbyists have a First Amendment right to do their jobs — and that if voters don't like the current situation, they can pass a new law.
Billboard lobbyists proved their worth in September 2006, when the City Council approved, after almost no debate, a sweetheart deal granting Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor permission to erect hundreds of digital billboards citywide, each containing 449,280 ultrabright LED bulbs whose glow penetrates people's curtains.
Only about 80 of the billboards were erected before a lawsuit put a stop to it. They have been deemed illegal and were recently turned off — under court order.
When Garcetti rushed this deal through, he owned 200 shares of Clear Channel Communications stock, as L.A. Weekly reported in February. At the time, Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman insisted his boss “was not aware that Clear Channel Communications retained any control of Clear Channel Outdoor,” an odd statement from a former Rhodes Scholar.
Asked what stands out about Garcetti as a leader, longtime City Hall watcher Epperhart says sheepishly, “I have to tell you, I can't think of anything he did as council president that stands out. The guy's really smart, he's really wonky and interested. The frustration for us is, you have to translate that into action.”
Jack Humphreville, who writes the LA Watchdog column for the CityWatch website and is a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, agrees.
“Eric's failed to lead on budget issues,” Humphreville says. “He doesn't have the balls to face up to the unions.”
In 2009, a meeting took place between Wendy Greuel, her political consultant John Shallman, and Richard Katz, a former assemblyman who is a strong ally of Greuel's and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's. Greuel had just been elected city controller.
“Controller's an awful job,” Epperhart says. “You can lift up the rug to see the dirt underneath it, but you don't have a vacuum cleaner.”
Shallman's advice was simple: Greuel should be like her predecessor, Laura Chick, a fiery controller who was publicly beloved for her energy and independence. When Villaraigosa in 2008 convinced voters to approve the cellphone tax, Proposition S, promising that the money would pay for 1,000 new cops, Chick made news by all but calling him a liar — and making clear the revenue would go to the general fund to be spent as the City Council wished.
Shallman advised Greuel to pattern herself after Chick, and the 2013 mayor's race would be a cinch. Katz reportedly disagreed. He said that was the problem with government: too much finger-pointing, too much fighting.
Neither Shallman nor Katz recalls this meeting but both agree with the characterizations.
“I think Laura's approach worked for Laura in a number of ways,” Katz says. “But it also limits your role. If you go into that mode, you're going to be great at pointing out problems but not solving problems.”
It now seems clear that, as controller, Greuel went with Katz's approach, behaving more nicely and being less outspoken than Laura Chick.
During the primary, a common Greuel talking point was that she found $160 million in “waste, fraud and abuse,” a phrase popularized by Ronald Reagan. Upon examination, that number collapsed like a rickety tree house.
A large chunk of the $160 million turned out to be cash the city could have raised had it sold even more advertising space on “street furniture,” the city-owned bus benches and advertising kiosks that force-feed the services of bail bondsmen and lawyers to waiting bus riders.
This wasn't waste, fraud or abuse. The City Council had simply, in a rare moment of restraint, listened to constituents who didn't want their every field of vision turned into advertising clutter, in the city dubbed the illegal billboard capital of the world.
“She was never in this to be controller,” says Kevin James, a Republican talk show host who failed in his bid for mayor and now avidly backs Garcetti. “She was in this to be mayor. And I think the city suffered for it.”
Greuel never audited LAPD or the fire department, although she did report on fire department response times — in reaction to an exposé by the L.A. Times. She surveyed a number of programs at DWP, yet never performed a major audit. Her website admits she found zero dollars of waste, fraud and abuse within the department made infamous in the classic film about civic corruption, Chinatown.
Does anyone actually believe that the DWP — publicly owned by residents of Los Angeles but hated as arrogant and bloated — wastes no money?
Greuel often has taken the totemic utility at its word. Take, for instance, the spring of 2010, one of the wildest seasons at City Hall. In March, the DWP and Villaraigosa asked the City Council to raise water and power rates by a staggering 28 percent — to pay, or so they claimed, for a transition to green energy.
In a bold moment of brinksmanship that made national news, DWP tried to get the 28 percent hike by blackmailing the city for $73.5 million — money it annually hands over to the general fund as part of a needlessly complex franchise deal, supposedly in lieu of paying property taxes.
The City Council, shaken but not stirred, approved a smaller rate hike. Villaraigosa went ballistic. Greuel then declared that L.A. could run out of money without the DWP funds and Villaraigosa panicked, suggesting a partial shutdown of nonessential services. Moody's lowered the city's credit rating in response to the antics.
Then, lo and behold, city officials found some money lying around, the DWP handed over the $73.5 million and, urged on by Garcetti, the City Council approved a huge, if slightly smaller, rate hike.
Greuel's promises to audit the DWP never really materialized. What audits she did do, Millman says, “didn't go after cost drivers — salaries and benefits of employees.”
Those employees are represented by the powerful and unpopular International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which has spent millions of dollars on a super PAC that supports Greuel for mayor.
A report on DWP salaries finally was undertaken by Fred Pickel, the official ratepayer advocate for utility customers. Pickel found that IBEW members are paid, on average, salaries 25 percent higher than people in the same jobs at private utilities — at a massive cost to residents.
Like Garcetti, Greuel is well liked by many community leaders. Damien Goodmon, of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, recalls asking for a meeting between Greuel and his group. “Her staff got back to us within two days with a date [just] a week and a half away,” Goodmon says.
Shawn Simons, who is friends with Goodmon, has a different take on this. “So many of the neighborhood council people are up Greuel's bum. We're a group of disenfranchised shmucks who get kicked around all the time. And when someone comes around and pets us, we roll over and give them our belly.”
City Hall watchdog Humphreville, who is very sour on Garcetti, doesn't think much of Greuel either. Like bicycle advocate Thompson, Humphreville is considering abstaining from the vote for Los Angeles mayor on May 21.
“I may not vote for either one of them,” Thompson says. “It's one of those things where you just say, 'Fuck 'em.' ”
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