The most remarkable proposal of the mayor's race to date took most of the field by surprise last week. On Tuesday, Controller Wendy Greuel announced that, if elected, she intends to add 2,000 officers to the ranks of the LAPD and 800 firefighters to the Fire Department over the next seven years.
That startled even Greuel's supporters, many of whom privately regard her promise as unsustainable even under rosy economic conditions. She insisted, of course, that these 2,800 new city employees could be added without a tax increase, even though Los Angeles is looking at sizable shortfalls for years to come. Indeed, many city leaders are calling for a sales tax hike just to avoid further cuts in police, never mind increases.
Greuel, who decries "waste, fraud and abuse" with numbing repetitiveness, said eliminating the same would supply the cash necessary. She did not say how.
Given that, her proposal had all the earmarks of pandering.
That's certainly how her opponents regarded it. Councilman Eric Garcetti, whom most regard as essentially tied with Greuel for the lead in the mayor's race, called the hiring goal an "arbitrary number" and the proposal "an election-year promise." Councilwoman Jan Perry rejected the idea as a "cut-and-paste job" taken from one of Greuel's advisors.
Away from the campaign trail, reactions ranged from perplexed to annoyed. Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who was once LAPD's chief, told the Daily News he was "at a loss" to figure out how the city could pay for the expansion. Council President Herb Wesson, who's leading the charge for the sales tax, questioned whether Greuel's plan was warranted or realistic.
The greatest beneficiaries of Greuel's remarks, however, were the candidates who are doggedly working the edges of the campaign, fighting against those with greater money and name recognition and trying to break through by arguing that City Hall can't be trusted.
One of those is Emanuel A. Pleitez, who has elbowed his way into the first rank of candidates in recent weeks, qualifying for matching funds and earning a spot in the debates that have become a near-daily event. He's offering himself as an alternative to the elected officials on the ballot but in the form of a native Angeleno who's a Democrat, not the Republican option of lawyer and radio personality Kevin James.
He talks fast and comes off as young, which he is — Pleitez turned 30 in December and looks even younger. But he spent time at the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. and at a Los Angeles technology company, and he's comfortable with numbers. He's floating an idea to reduce the city's pension obligations by allowing employees to opt for cash payments (it's a novel idea but one that would require a big upfront commitment that the city doesn't have the money to pay for). He quickly leapt on Greuel's hiring proposal.
"You'd think the city controller would be more mindful of our budget," he said. "It's unnecessary and, quite frankly, irresponsible."
James has the tough challenge of trying to persuade Los Angeles voters to back a Republican. But he's been campaigning for mayor for more than a year and has attracted admiring reviews for his debate performances. He too jumped on the Greuel proposal. "Wendy's plan," he told me in an email, "is unrealistic and based upon rosy projections just like much that she has proposed and voted for at City Hall."
James also alluded to the sales tax measure, noting that Greuel opposes it even though others — including the unions that represent public safety workers — argue that without it, police officers and others will be laid off. On the one hand, then, she is opposing a tax that would preserve police, while on the other, she is proposing a significant increase in the size of the police force.
There are miles to go before either James or Pleitez can be considered a threat to Greuel, Garcetti or even Perry. They trail by every measure: polls, money, familiarity with voters. But Greuel's comments reinforce the criticisms of her specifically and of the elected officials in this race generally, that they are unwilling to confront the magnitude of the city's problems and unable to be straight with voters.
The notion that City Hall plays to Los Angeles' worst instincts — knowingly promising more than it can deliver — is a powerful one. It crosses lines of ethnicity and class, party and ideology. It fuels much of the disappointment with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and it offers a ray of hope to Pleitez and James.
Greuel last week lent credence to that notion.