The top five candidates for Los Angeles mayor faced off Monday night in a debate focused on the city budget deficit, jobs and the economy. The televised event was an opportunity for the candidates to reach a much wider audience than previous community forums.
None of the candidates stood out – or stumbled.
“As mayor, I am going to get this economy back on track,” City Councilman Eric Garcetti said. “That is the way to balance our budget.”
Garcetti, like the rest of the candidates, opposes a half- cent sales tax hike on the March ballot – a tax the city administrative officer has said is desperately needed. L.A. faces a projected $200 to $320 million deficit annually over the next five years.
“We can’t tax and cut our way out of this,” Garcetti said.
Garcetti touted his experience bringing development projects to his Hollywood district. He also pointed to his work as council president to shrink the size of city government, and on pension reform. But neither he – nor his chief rival City Controller Wendy Greuel – called directly for further increases in city employee contributions to cover pension and health care costs.
Garcetti and Greuel have raised the most money and performed the best in early polls. But most voters remain undecided about their choice to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Like Garcetti, Greuel said she’d work to improve the economy, pointing to her work on a 2006 business tax reform package. But she focused most on saving money by using the audits she’s conducted as city controller.
“I’ve identified $160 million in waste, fraud, and abuse – efficiencies, things that we can do today,” Greuel said. She said as city controller, she “knows where the bodies are buried.”
For Councilwoman Jan Perry, the most important step to addressing the city’s budget problems is to squeeze more concessions from city labor unions.
"We have to be honest with them, very forthright, and tell them this is about their long term – our long term survival,” Perry said. “We need their help and partnership in contributing more to their pensions, contributing more to their health care costs.”
The remaining two candidates said Garcetti, Greuel and Perry created the fiscal problems at City Hall, and are hardly the people to fix them.
“It happened because of a series of bad decisions,” entertainment attorney and former radio talk show host Kevin James said. James, the only Republican in the race, said an outsider like him is best to negotiate concessions from labor unions.
“It’s going to take an independent candidate – someone who does not have too cozy a relationship with the unions,” he said.
Emanuel Pleitez, a 30-year-old former high tech executive and one-time aide to Villaraigosa, said he too would seek more concessions from city employees. He also said he’d work to increase tax revenues.
“The way we do that is by expanding our tax base and investing in the communities that have been underserved for much too long,” Pleitez said. “I’m talking about South L.A., the Eastside, the east San Fernando Valley, Pico Union – areas that have been neglected.”
The debate featured no zingers, and some in the audience even considered the candidates lackluster.
“I want more passion,” said Lisa Gritzner, president of the longtime L.A. lobbying firm Cerrell Associates. “It was a little milquetoast. Everybody gave safe answers.”
Political observers consider Pleitez and James long shots in this race. Both have raised far less money than Garcetti, Greuel and Perry. But James is drawing significant support from one of the biggest Republican donors in the nation.
Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who owns a chemical and metals conglomerate, has donated $600,000 to an independent committee backing James. Simmons contributed more than $20 million last year to defeat President Obama, whom he calls a socialist. James has said he disagrees with Simmons’ characterization of Obama, but appreciates his support.
The connection, apparently, is Fred Davis, who is a GOP strategist and advertising man who lives in Hollywood and has connections to Simmons. Davis heads the committee backing James.
The election is March 5. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers go on to a May runoff.