SCOTT SHAFER: May is not usually a month associated with elections, but Tuesday, Angelinos will choose a successor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who’s termed out. Villaraigosa has had something of a stormy run as mayor, something he talked about recently with KPCC talk show host Patt Morrison.
ANTONIA VILLARAIGOSA: I didn’t relish furloughing thousands of city employees. I didn’t feel good about the battles I’ve had to engage in to protect kids, with the teachers’ union. It’s not something that I wanted to do going into office – but been willing to do because I firmly believe you’ve got to do what you believe, and that means even if it’s something that’s uncomfortable to do.
SHAFER: Vying to replace Villaraigosa in next week’s runoff, two well-known politicians, L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel. Raphe Sonenshein is following the race closely. He’s executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. Raphe Sonenshein, good to have you with us.
RAPHE SONENSHEIN: Good to be with you.
SHAFER: Well let me ask you, both Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti grew up in the San Fernando Valley. They’re both L.A. political insiders. Both have more than a decade at City Hall. What would you say distinguishes them other than their gender?
SONENSHEIN: Well I think there’s a real difference in style and orientation. Wendy Greuel comes out of the San Fernando Valley, represented a district that worried about overdevelopment and was very homeowner based. And Eric Garcetti comes out of the Hollywood council district that he still represents, which is sort of the leading edge of the kind of future urban sophistication of the city. Now they’re both a lot more complicated than that, but I think that sometimes when you look at who they’ve represented over the years, that’s one of the big differences.
SHAFER: There have been some debates in this campaign, including in the runoff, and one issue in the campaign is where the candidates are getting their money and their support from. There was a debate earlier this week on KCAL-TV, and let’s listen to Eric Garcetti attacking Wendy Greuel for her support from the department of water and power.
ERIC GARCETTI: There’s a clear choice in this race. The department of water and power super PAC led by that union has now broken all records with their partners in supporting Ms. Greuel. I have the independence to make sure that you can have a leader who will always do the right thing.
SHAFER: And Raphe Sonenshein, L.A., I assume, is a labor town, a union town. Why is that an issue?
SONENSHEIN: Well, because labor has become so successful in Los Angeles that it’s actually become a lightning rod for criticism as what some people call a too-powerful interest group. Other people don’t think that that’s true. Wendy Greuel has much more support from public sector labor unions than Eric Garcetti. Garcetti has done pretty well with private sector unions and he also has the teachers’ union, which itself is a lightning rod in terms of education reform. Thirty years ago, L.A. was a business town with labor having a very small role. Now labor is big enough to actually be sometimes unpopular. That’s really a huge shift in the politics of Los Angeles.
SHAFER: Just in the past weeks we’ve seen Mayor Villaraigosa release his budget, and he’s been kind of pushing back against pay increases for city employees. Is that playing out in the race at all?
SONENSHEIN: Well it’s quite important because in 2007 the city council approved and the mayor signed a 25 percent pay increase for most city employees at the moment that the economy was in its best shape. At a recent debate both mayoral candidates said that when they were in the council and voted for that that that was a mistake. And in January, the last element of that race comes into effect, which is 5.5 percent. The mayor has proposed renegotiating that, even though there’s some money kept aside in the budget for it. This is going be a very contentious issue for the next mayor, which is how to balance the budget in light of that decision.
SHAFER: One thing that always matters in campaigns is biography, and let’s listen to how Wendy Greuel is describing herself vis-à-vis Eric Garcetti in this recent debate.
WENDY GREUEL: With all due respect to my opponent, he has, in most entire professional life has been on the city council. I’ve had the opportunity to have a small family business, work in the entertainment industry at DreamWorks Studios, work for an incredible mayor, Tom Bradley.
SHAFER: So Raphe Sonenshein, there you hear her trying to describe herself as someone who hasn’t spent her whole career in city government. Is that playing well? Or how well is it playing?
SONENSHEIN: I’m not sure how important that has turned out to be. Now Eric Garcetti likes to point out that he was a college professor at Occidental College – that he has not always been an elected official. But these are two established elected officials in the city. The reason biography is so important though – these are not the two best-known candidates compared to previous mayoral candidates in L.A. like Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa and Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, who were really widely known when they ran. So in a way, each candidate has been kind of telling their story to the voters only a week before the election, are still sort of introducing themselves, are still trying to build that kind of core constituency that can carry them to victory in a very low turnout election.
SHAFER: Final question, Raphe: What kind of city is the winner going to inherit? What kind of shape is L.A. in?
SONENSHEIN: I think L.A.’s actually in pretty good shape. It’s certainly in better shape than it was several years ago. The crime rate has really gone down. Mass transportation is really underway. The budget has come through the worst of it. Now of course, there’s a lot of obstacles ahead having to do with pensions and long-term fiscal sustainability. I think the trouble the city has that the mayor’s going to have to grapple with is the basic physical condition of the city – the streets, the neighborhoods, the sidewalks, the things that voters see every single day, a lot of that has drifted in Los Angeles in recent decades. And I think if anything two candidates who are not so well known, like Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti might be better positioned to really sort of take care of that business from here on.
SHAFER: The nuts and bolts of governing?
SONENSHEIN: Absolutely, at the street level, at the neighborhood level, where people really see it.
SHAFER: Raphe Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. Raphe, thanks so much.
SONENSHEIN: It’s my pleasure.