Austin Beutner may have dropped out the race to become mayor of Los Angeles, but he hasn't dropped out of the race to keep talking about what L.A. needs to do to fix its problems. I'd been following his campaign fairly closely for almost a year, mainly because I was intrigued by his work as first deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa; and because it was interesting to see a former investment banker with no real public sector background try to turn himself into a West Coast version of New York's Michael Bloomberg (Beutner calls Bloomberg the "archetype of a modern big-city mayor").
Why did he drop out? "When you get to this stage, it's 24/7," he said when I spoke to him earlier today. "It's like you're in a off-off-off Broadway show, with four performances a day and no understudy." He just wasn't able to be the kind of parent he wanted to be. Now he's back on "carpool" duty, he quipped.
Some media reports following his announcement that he was leaving the race focused on some initial early polling by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, which placed him far at the back of the pack, as well as on how he allegedly wasn't raising as much money as some other candidates. Beutner brushed both off, calling the analysis "lazy."
He stressed that Bill Clinton, early in his successful presidential run, was polling at 2 percent. He also noted that if you looked more carefully at the polls themselves, two-thirds of respondents declared themselves undecided, while other candidates were registering support only in the "low twenties."
These were candidates — including City Controller Wendy Greuel, City Councilmember Eric Garcetti and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — who have all been in office for years. "That's not very good," Beutner said. As for money, Beutner said that his campaign was raising money at a decent rate and that, in any case, he'd been very fortunate in his life where money was concerned. "Financial resources wouldn't have been an issue."
Financial resources are a challenge for L.A., however, which is facing a $200-million budget deficit. "It's a huge problem," Beutner countered, when I suggested that it might not be (I've blogged about why it isn't a big deal, in fact).
"If you talk about it as math, people's eyes glaze over. But there's a human need for government services. And $200 million understates the problem meaningfully."
He then broke the problem down. Police overtime banking hitting 800 hours per officer (up from 96 in 2009), representing a "staggering amount of money" — $78 million last year, according to the L.A. Times — currently being deferred as IOUs. He called is "check kiting," saying you'd go to jail in the private sector if you did it.
A "billion and half" looming sidewalk crisis, with zero budgeted for repairs. Expectations "in perpetuity" of 7.75-percent return on pension funds (a cut from 8 percent, but still far too high, Beutner thinks). "The real structural deficit is far more than $200 million. It's a train wreck coming down the road."
There is a bright side. "As much as the economy has been in crisis, city revenues have been relatively flat," he said. They haven't been falling. That means breathing room, time to grow the revenue pie, which Beutner concedes is a multiyear process. Nevertheless, he argued that the budget crisis isn't something to be studied or endlessly discussed. "The number one trait voters say they want in a mayor is someone who will roll up their sleeves and get things done. And the number one complaint about City Hall is that there's a lot of talk, but nothing happens."
Beutner may be out of the race, but he doesn't sound like a guy who's completely stopped running. So we probably shouldn't expect to stop hearing him talking about how the simple "need to get things done transcends any one issue," as he put it, anytime soon.