Los Angeles will not elect a new mayor for another 17 months — the nation will consider President Obama's future first — but the race for City Hall is already underway. Most of the likely candidates are raising money and building support, and last week, for the first time, three who have declared shared a stage. It was hardly a debate — more a conversation in front of an audience — but it was a revealing first look at some of the contours of the campaign.
The candidates who participated — Councilwoman Jan Perry, Council President Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel — are among the city's better-known and well-regarded public officials. Greuel holds a citywide office, so she's running in familiar geography; as council president, Garcetti has reach beyond that of his colleagues; Perry represents downtown, with the cachet that comes with that, and she is so far the only African American to show interest in running this time.
The title of the conference was "Housing, Transportation and Jobs," and the candidates came prepared to discuss those topics, armed with details of their own records. Garcetti justifiably took credit for his role in building the city's affordable-housing trust fund; Greuel pointed to her attempts to identify waste in city spending; Perry reminded listeners of the growth of downtown, not to mention her work to create jobs and housing in the poorer parts of her district.
As they spoke, each consulting notes, it was clear why they are widely regarded as dedicated, well-meaning public servants. They have ideas and records, and they convey a certain decency. Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development (and former San Antonio mayor) who was serving as the conference's master of ceremonies and joined the panel, went so far as to tell the audience that Los Angeles would be lucky to have any one of them as mayor.
And yet, there was also something unsettling about watching them compare visions for Los Angeles. It's not that there's anything wrong with their proposals; rather, it's that all three have largely the same vision, one that views City Hall from the inside out rather than from the outside in. In that shared idea of Los Angeles government, City Hall's job is to fine-tune, doing pretty much what it does today — providing public safety and aiding schools where it can, encouraging transit-oriented housing development, stimulating jobs — while trying to do it more efficiently.
That worldview was most on display in response to two questions I posed (I was moderating the event). I asked each of the officials to describe their sense of the electorate and for their assessment of the job that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has done. Cisneros went first and, though conceding that there was a lot of anger in the country these days — as well as impatience with ideological division and immobility — he offered that he believed Los Angeles residents were more optimistic than most. The three candidates agreed, acknowledging some discontent but saying that their encounters with constituents were fundamentally positive.
On Villaraigosa, all three candidates chortled a bit. But again, once they were talking, they were largely favorable. Greuel said she believed the next mayor needed to do both "big things and little things," a subtle dig at Villaraigosa's perceived inattention to detail. Perry said she believed the mayor had "bumped his head on some issues." Garcetti commended the mayor for "swinging for the fences," another ever-so-nuanced criticism, with its suggestion of strikeouts to accompany the long balls. From there, however, Garcetti, like his colleagues, returned to the positive, ticking off a list of accomplishments in youth violence, workforce development and infrastructure construction that the mayor — not coincidentally, often with Garcetti's support — has been able to achieve.
Villaraigosa sometimes gets less credit than he deserves. His critics run the range from the reasonable to the histrionic, and the most shrill among them often accuse him of gobbling up the spotlight while achieving essentially nothing. That's not fair or accurate. He's presided over significant declines in crime; he secured passage of Measure R and with it a bevy of transportation projects; he's been innovative in responding to gang violence and dedicated, if not always successful, in his efforts to improve schools.
But that's hardly produced a contented electorate with a rosy view of its government and mayor. At least, that's not the public I bump into around town. I hear from people desperate for work or fearful of losing jobs, from poor parents agonizing over their children's schools, from middle-class parents convinced that city government is captive to unions, and from immigrants bewildered by the hostility directed at them. Many are bitterly disappointed with Villaraigosa.
This forum was the opening salvo of a very long campaign for mayor. As it unfolds, these candidates — and those who may join the race — need to hear from those constituents too. Far from the contented masses this group imagines, far from the inner chambers of City Hall, the electorate seems to me divided, unsettled, worried and mad.