Wendy Greuel entered the UCLA Faculty Center last week to Alicia Keys' soaring anthem “Girl On Fire.” But after two years of campaigning for mayor, and a disappointing second-place finish in the March 5 primary, Greuel was still trying to light a spark. 

In her speech, she vowed she would break through the “paralysis” at City Hall. Yet Greuel's campaign had been paralyzed by an internal power struggle, according to interviews with numerous insiders who asked not to be identified while discussing internal campaign matters.
Greuel's two top aides clashed over differences of style and strategy. Greuel was unable to take the lead in fixing the conflict.

John Shallman, Greuel's top consultant, wanted to do things his way — punch early, often and hard. Rose Kapolczynski, Greuel's campaign manager, tried to rein him in. Greuel had avoided taking sides until she finished four points behind Councilman Eric Garcetti, which prompted a shake-up.

Greuel ended up with Shallman. However, it was Kapolczynski who made the call — Greuel did not fire her. Insiders say Kapolczynski did not wish to engage in a turf fight, but also did not want to stick around as her responsibilities were handed to Shallman. She stepped down as campaign manager on March 23, taking a title as senior adviser to avoid negative press attention.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Late last year, Greuel was in the lead. Her own internal polling showed her up by two points over Garcetti. Meanwhile, Garcetti's internal poll had her up by three. The electorate's wary mood also played to Greuel's favor. As a woman with an image as a fiscal watchdog, she could argue that she represented change from Antonio Villaraigosa.

But over two difficult months of campaigning, her lead evaporated.

Greuel perceived her main job as raising money for the campaign and working to round up endorsements. Her preference was to leave the nitty-gritty of campaign work to the professionals. But for much of the time, that left it unclear who was really in charge.

To hear Shallman's allies tell it, the result was a cautious campaign run by committee, without the clear focus required to drive home a consistent theme.

Shallman, who ran Greuel's first campaign for City Council, has a reputation for aggressive campaigns that sometimes hit below the belt. In this case, he wanted to hit Garcetti hard for failing to do anything about waste as president of the City Council. But, according to those close to Shallman, Kapolczynski did not want to attack.

Kapolczynski acknowledged there were differences on the campaign, but said they were able to work them out.

“Of course, every campaign team has its disagreements,” she said. “But after a decision was made, we all supported the decision and worked to implement it in the best way possible.”

Kapolczynski is smart and experienced, but not as aggressive as Shallman. Though Shallman was the lead consultant, Kapolczynski had control of the budget and hired all the staff. She worked mostly out of campaign headquarters, while Shallman visited only a couple times a week.

But as the senior consultant, he had a tendency to grab for control. Campaign workers loyal to Kapolczynski came to resent some of Shallman's interventions. When staffers would complain to Greuel, she would say he had misinterpreted her. From their point of view, either she couldn't rein Shallman in, or she actually agreed with him and did not want to admit it. Either way, it was disconcerting.

Shallman was used to having his own way, while Kapolczynski was more comfortable with collaboration.

“Most campaigns I've worked in, from presidential on down, have had a team approach to developing strategy,” Kapolczynski said. “Getting input from the pollster, media consultant and other campaign leaders on major strategic questions usually leads to better decision-making.”

Shallman declined to comment, except to say, “I have great respect for Rose.”

Kapolczynski made her name when she managed Barbara Boxer's Senate campaign in 1992. Greuel brought Kapolczynski aboard because she brought experience working on higher-profile campaigns, while Shallman tended to work on local races. Kapolczynski also had experience with “breakthrough” campaigns — and Greuel intended to become the first female mayor.

Kapolczynski sought to energize women to volunteer to make calls and knock on doors, as they had done for Boxer's Senate campaign. But Shallman's allies say the message of being the “first woman mayor” fell flat in focus groups.

The pro-Shallman camp also had scathing criticism for the volunteer field program, which Kapolczynski oversaw. The program, they argued, simply did not identify enough Greuel voters to be worth the effort. After the primary, control of the field program switched to Shallman, and four field staffers left.

But the field program was a relatively small part of the campaign. A much bigger part was the TV communications and the messaging — which were mostly up to Shallman. As chief strategist, Shallman built the campaign's message around Greuel's record of rooting out “waste, fraud and abuse” as city controller. Greuel repeatedly claimed that she had found $160 million in waste. But when that number came under fire, Greuel had a hard time defending it.

The campaign also took a hit when Greuel rolled out a police hiring plan that was recycled from Shallman's earlier mayoral campaign for Bob Hertzberg. The plan was intended to show Greuel's “vision.” But at a cost of $417 million, it conflicted with her fiscal watchdog message.

The campaign also did not figure out a way to deal with Brian D'Arcy. D'Arcy, the head of the DWP union, spent $2 million backing Greuel in the primary — an unprecedented amount. Predictably, Greuel's opponents piled on the issue, charging that she would be beholden to powerful special interests. Neither Shallman nor Kapolczynski came up with an effective way to deal with the issue. At times they said Garcetti was just as cozy with labor as she was. At others, they accused Garcetti of “demonizing” labor. In the end, the best they could do was try to change the subject.

The Garcetti campaign, meanwhile, borrowed Greuel's message of “getting back to basics.” Garcetti had long been known as a lofty idea guy. But his campaign read the mood of the electorate and crafted a message about fixing potholes and answering phones. In effect, Garcetti stole Greuel's pothole-filling image — and did better with it.

Before the primary, the conventional wisdom was that Greuel's voters were more likely to turn out, and that Garcetti would have to expand the electorate to win.

But even with a lackluster turnout of 21 percent, Garcetti still finished first — no small surprise.

In the wake of Greuel's second-place finish, Shallman won the internal battles. Greuel brought in Janelle Erickson, who worked with Shallman on her first council campaign. Erickson reports to Shallman, making it clear that Shallman is completely in charge.

Greuel's supporters argue that she has turned the corner, and had a couple of strong weeks recently. She picked up endorsements from Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson, and Maxine Waters and gave the speech at UCLA presenting herself as a “strong leader” who will break through City Hall's paralysis. She also threw some sharp elbows at Garcetti (and at the media). The “reboot” was clearly more what Shallman had in mind all along.

Greuel's campaign has touted two recent polls that show the race a dead heat. But it's not at all clear that Greuel's troubles are entirely behind her.

“The Garcetti campaign has more spring in its step,” said Eric Bauman, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, who is neutral in the race. “The Greuel campaign clearly has had a metamorphosis. Whether or not seven weeks is enough time to re-create the aura of inevitability, I'm not sure.”

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