Los Angeles City Elections 2013

Newton: Where Greuel went wrong

She has devoted much of her career to serving and improving Los Angeles. But she ran a lousy campaign for mayor.

Smart and capable, City Controller Wendy Greuel has been a high-profile public servant who believes in Los Angeles and has devoted much of her career to improving it. But boy, did she run a lousy campaign for mayor.

Eric Garcetti's sizable win might retroactively give his victory a glow of inevitability. But in fact it was Greuel who held the early advantage. She entered the race earlier, she held citywide office, and she ran the table with establishment endorsements, from former Democratic President Bill Clinton to former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan.

Garcetti ran a crafty and disciplined campaign, but the city councilman never struck big themes or inspired particular passion. Instead, he pressed hard on small issues and exploited Greuel's weaknesses.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

At Greuel's glum election night party, it was clear by 9 p.m. that she'd lost when the first wave of absentee ballots showed her barely staying even with Garcetti. In the end, despite talk that this was a close race, it wasn't.

How did a candidate with so much going for her squander this opportunity?

• Greuel never introduced herself in a positive way to Los Angeles voters. During the primary, she fended off challenges from Garcetti as well as Councilwoman Jan Perry and Republican upstart Kevin James with a rash of defensive and combative mail and advertising, most notably a churlish personal attack against Perry. That may have given Greuel an edge on her opponents, but it established her principally in negative terms. And in the end, was it even necessary? Neither James nor Perry came close to reaching the runoff. Meantime, voters didn't get to see the likable and engaging Greuel best known to her many friends and allies.

• Greuel didn't stress the historic nature of her campaign — she could have been Los Angeles' first female mayor. She tried to make up for the missed opportunity near the end, but by then it was too late.

• She debated too much. This campaign will be remembered for, among other things, its deluge of debates. The candidates faced off some 50 times. That favored Garcetti, who is polished and conveys sincerity. Greuel was left to argue that politics are about more than eloquence. She's right, of course, but each debate still seemed to leave her worse off.

• She overpromised and underperformed. Shortly before the primary vote, when she announced that she supported adding another 2,000 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department if the city budget permitted it, even some of Greuel's biggest supporters groaned. As she well knows, there's no money for any such expansion and no prospect of it any time soon. Even as an aspiration, her comments were rightly viewed as pandering. Meanwhile, she tried to run on her record as an auditor who saved the city money by eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse," but she couldn't point to many significant results of that work.

• She spent her money foolishly. Greuel raised more than $7 million in contributions, but she burned through it quickly and had to lend herself cash near the end. Not only did that limit her capacity to get her message out, it also undermined an essential aspect of that message: that she would be a dependable and prudent manager of the city's finances.

• Finally, and this is the big one: She allowed Garcetti to turn the campaign into a referendum on the role of public employee unions in city politics. At one level, that was ridiculous. Garcetti has long enjoyed the support of organized labor, and he unsuccessfully sought the endorsement of the county labor federation in this race. But two unions — those representing police officers and Department of Water and Power employees — made it their mission to elect Greuel, and they spent enormous sums in that effort. That gave Garcetti an opening and he took it, hammering Greuel in debates and advertisements with the argument that she was the "handpicked candidate" of city employees and that only he had the independence to deal with them in the public interest. She never managed a cogent response.

At Riordan's downtown restaurant last weekend, Greuel looked like a candidate in trouble. Although gracious, she was obviously worn out. Still, she worked the line of diners, greeting voters and making her pitch. Pausing only for a few minutes to nibble on a pancake — and complain about The Times' poll that had her down by seven points (she lost by eight) — she headed quickly to another rally.

Greuel didn't lose for lack of effort. But she ran a poor campaign and allowed herself to be outfoxed. It was her race to lose, and she lost it.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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