Op-Ed

Newton: Greuel's hot hand

It's very early in the L.A. mayor's race, but the city controller is making her mark.

Wendy Greuel

City Controller Wendy Greuel is among the candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles. She is personable and well liked and holds an office that allows her to make news, most recently with an audit of the city¿s lax oversight of its gas stations that helped lead to the arrest of a city worker. (Los Angeles Times / July 27, 2011)

It's still very, very early in the campaign to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, but right now, it's City Controller Wendy Greuel who's playing the hot hand.

The only independent poll shows her in a tie with City Council President Eric Garcetti and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who still has not decided whether to run.

Greuel is personable and well liked and holds an office that allows her to make news, most recently with an audit of the city's lax oversight of its gas stations that helped lead to the arrest of a city worker. And more than any other candidate, she stands to pick up the business support that businessman Austin Beutner had hoped to corral; Beutner's campaign sputtered and he withdrew a couple weeks ago.

Greuel took her campaign to the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum last week, following earlier appearances by Yaroslavsky and Garcetti. It's a useful venue for evaluating these early candidacies — large enough to see the candidates work a room, and populated by insiders who bring their own expertise to the event.

Greuel, who was celebrating her 51st birthday, was gracious and articulate, fluent in the intricacies of City Hall and deft at emphasizing the range of experience that differentiates her, if only slightly, from her leading competitors.

Greuel once worked at DreamWorks, and her family has long owned a small business. She highlights those aspects of her background to distinguish herself from politicians who have spent their lives seeking and holding elected office. And she stitches that together with her current work — supervising audits intended to identify waste in city spending. Those give Greuel standing to argue that although she's spent the last decade at City Hall, she's not entirely a creature of it.

In her remarks, Greuel sharply criticized Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council for the budget they have moved swiftly through the approval process in recent weeks. As they have so many times before, they merely delayed a reckoning with the city's fiscal shortfall, Greuel said, "tinkering around the edges" instead of making hard choices. She called that "dangerous and completely unacceptable."

And yet she took care not to offend her labor supporters, stressing that merely laying off workers damages services to the public.

One of the achievements of Villaraigosa — and of Mayor Richard Riordan in the 1990s — is that his devotion to education has made it an inescapable issue in mayoral politics even though the mayor has little formal authority in that area. Recognizing that, Greuel said she would lobby Sacramento for money owed to the Los Angeles Unified School District and would press for longer school days and school years — proposals she says even her 9-year-old is willing to consider.

Greuel doesn't present a vision for Los Angeles that is as coherent or persuasive as that of, say, Garcetti, who imagines a denser city, clustered around transit lines — something more akin to New York or parts of Hollywood, his district.

Greuel endorses some of that but also retains a fondness for the single-family home neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley, where she grew up. Her strength, as she herself says, is less one of vision than of competence.

We spoke after her address, and Greuel said she believes she's poised to gather broad support. Voters, she's convinced, are eager to elect someone who not only has a vision for a more livable Los Angeles but who is capable of bringing that vision about. Although she's been allied with Villaraigosa, Greuel acknowledges that a lack of follow through is what many of his most ardent supporters fault him on. By contrast, she insisted, "I have the ability to get things done."

The road ahead is long and full of potholes — Greuel, incidentally, says that some people call her the "pothole queen," though I've never heard anyone other than her refer to her that way. Councilwoman Jan Perry will fight her for business support, with Perry being able to point to her work transforming downtown in collaboration with AEG and other developers. Garcetti will draw significant support from labor and will check Greuel's ability to make inroads among Latinos, many of whom are drawn to Garcetti's politics and Mexican heritage. And with the departure of Beutner, radio host Kevin James hopes to play the role of City Hall outsider looking to storm the ramparts.

Moreover, the field still could change. Mall developer Rick Caruso continues to mull a possible bid, along with Yaroslavsky, who manages to poll among the leaders without having to work for it, at least for the moment.

Over the coming months, that field will shape and reshape. Front-runners will come and go. For the moment, it's Greuel who has momentum.

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

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