Wendy Greuel didn’t grow up thinking about politics, but as the student body president of John F. Kennedy High School in the San Fernando Valley, she got an opportunity that would change her life – she met then-Mayor Tom Bradley.
She was 17 at the time. As a student at UCLA, Greuel interned in the Mayor’s Office. Her first job was as an assistant to Bradley in the Office of Youth Development.
“I had fallen in love with Tom Bradley — in a good way,” Greuel said during a recent interview in her Boyle Heights campaign office.
As she crisscrosses the city for her mayoral quest, Greuel — who has served as L.A.'s City Controller since 2009 — likes to cite her work with Bradley. She invokes his name so much that two of her opponents — including Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is African-American — have a running bet to guess how many times Greuel mentions the former mayor during a debate.
Though the late mayor was a true mentor and personal friend to Greuel, there’s another reason for talking about the icon. The legacy left by Bradley, who led Los Angeles for 20 years, still carries weight in the city, according to Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
Greuel's connection to Bradley "would mean more for older voters,” Sonenshein said. “Now, it’s also true that in Los Angeles city elections, older voters turn out disproportionately. There are many older voters, and many voters in Los Angeles even who are not quite so old, who knew Tom Bradley … when he actually was in office.”
Bradley was famous for building coalitions and relationships during his tenure, from 1973 to 1993. Greuel says his leadership style still influences her.
“He just was quiet [and] subtle,” she said. “When he needed to, he was a big advocate and I think I learned from him that that’s the way to govern, that’s the way to get what you need.”
Politicians and staff who have worked with Greuel since the 1980s describe her as someone who builds and maintains relationships. After working for Bradley, Greuel did a stint at the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development during Henry Cisneros' tenure in Bill Clinton's administration. She also spent time at DreamWorks Studios. That company's principals — David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and, especially, Jeffrey Katzenberg — are big backers of her campaign.
In 2002, Greuel made a run for the Los Angeles City Council, facing off against then-Assemblyman Tony Cardenas. The two were locked in a contentious race that resulted in Greuel beating Cardenas by just 225 votes. The next year, Cardenas was elected to another Valley district and the two spent seven years sitting side-by-side in the council chamber.
“She’s a serious legislator and so am I, so we got along just fine and we ended up working together,” said Cardenas, now a member of Congress.
“When you used to see Wendy in committee, she would be very thoughtful," Cardenas recalled. "She’d do her homework and if she had to ask a bunch of tough questions, she didn’t do it in a way that people felt insulted or attacked personally. She just focused on the issue at hand."
For the Greuel campaign, the issue currently at hand seems to be the gathering of major endorsements. The unions representing police officers, firefighters and DWP workers are backing Greuel. The L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce supports her, as well. That's drawn criticism from observers who say those endorsements are a sign that Greuel would be beholden as mayor.
Jack Humphreville is a contributor to the website City Watch, and a frequent critic of the Department of Water and Power and its union, Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
"Obviously the IBEW is very powerful," Humphreville said. "They put a lot of money into campaigns, [so] it really makes me question whether she's going to be independent or not.”
So far, IBEW’s political action committee has spent $272,000 on Greuel's behalf. Following her endorsements from the public safety unions, she announced a plan to hire more cops, firefighters and paramedics by the year 2020. The proposal has been widely panned as unrealistic, given the city's current finances. But, Greuel says she understands her goals can only be reached through political pragmatism.
“As the mayor, I’m going to ensure that I have my 8-to-10 votes,” Greuel said, referring to the support she'd need from the council to pass her initiatives or the annual budget.
“I always think of the relationship between the mayor and council like a marriage. Your first year – it’s wonderful, it’s like your honeymoon … but what happens is, mayors forget. Just like marriages some times ... after a year, you have to work at it."
If elected, Greuel would become L.A.’s first woman mayor.