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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Austin Beutner during an event.
Austin Beutner wants to be the next Mayor of Los Angeles. He isn't a member of a political dynasty and he's only served in government for just over a year. But he's already raised over $200,000 in funds and secured at least one high-profile endorsement.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 20, former LA Mayor Richard Riordan took the podium inside a factory downtown. "Let's look at the future. Whatever solution we have for our economy, the basic thing is jobs, jobs, jobs," he said. "So I hope everybody will join me, and let's have Austin Beutner as our next mayor."
Nearly two years before Election Day, Richard Riordan--a Republican and one of the biggest players in LA politics--threw his unequivocal support behind Austin Beutner: a mild mannered investment banker who, until now, has never sought elected office. He says he wants to make Los Angeles "a city that works."
"Think about that in two ways: think about that as a city that works on behalf of the constituents. Think about that as a city where every Angeleno--when they finish school, when they move to Los Angeles--can get a good paying job, which they deserve."
Austin Beutner grew up Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of Steelcase Furniture and Gerald Ford. Born in 1960, he barely makes the baby boomer cut. He graduated from Dartmouth and made his fortune in finance. He became partner and his investment firm at just 29 and founded his own in 1996. He made millions as a result. He worked for the Clinton state department in Russia... And for over ten years he's lived in LA. But In 2007, his life changed course: Beutner broke his neck in a cycling accident, and he was out of commission for months.
"My oldest child is 15 now. And we had started Evercore--my prior business--right around the time he was born. When he was 2 or 3, I think he thought we made hats and bags. Because we used to pass out hats and bags with Evercore on them," Beutner said. "Now he's just finished 9th grade, he takes civics. If I can instill in my own kids, my own family the value of serving and giving back to the community, that's a great life lesson. So it's good for them, good for me, and I think I can make a difference in the community."
Beutner left Evercore and through Riordan, a longtime friend, he started working on that legacy. Before long, Mayor Villaraigosa tapped him as first deputy mayor in charge of economic development; then, later on, the head of the Department of Water and Power. He took only $1 a year as a salary.
"By the way, I had to sign a 10 page waiver to not get paid," said Beutner. "They sent me a statement form so I was entered the system, but no check. The DWP, on the other hand, I didn't have to sign a waiver. And I did get a check. For four cents a pay period!"
As Deputy Mayor, Beutner's mandate was to create jobs: he initiated a business tax holiday, wooed a Chinese electric car company over and found ways to expedite the permitting process for small businesses. All in a little over a year. Mark Lacter--who covers business for KPCC and LA Magazine--says those measures worked, but incrementally. "The number of actual jobs that will come out of that remain a little bit unclear," he said. "To be fair to him, no one is gonna take a job like that and suddenly generate thousands of jobs. It's just not going to happen."
As mayor, Beutner says he wants to finish what he started. He paints bureaucracy and waste as the main obstacle for prosperity, and himself as the man to address it. Lacter agrees, saying of Beutner: "He had begun to address that, to some extent. The whole restaurant permitting thing is much better now than it was just a year or two ago," Lacter said. "To really go through a major restructuring of a bureaucracy as large and horrible as LA's is a really tall task. "
And while Mayor Villaraigosa hasn't endorsed anyone yet, he seems glad that Beutner's in the race: "You know, I joke with Austin from time to time, he came from the business world but I think he saw that government can do good. And that there's a real opportunity to continue some of the work that he helped start here in the city."
But he has to get elected first. Rick Orlov, city hall reporter for the Daily News, says he'll need a lot of luck. "It depends on what's going on in the city at the time, and if people believe he can help with the local economy," he said. "He's proven himself as being able to run a large organization like a city government. But he has to work with the City Council. The truth is, in city hall is you need 8 votes to get anything done."
And unlike city council members--some of whom he'll likely face in a mayoral election--he doesn't have the same kind of natural, regional constituency. He's also reluctant to self-fund his campaign, even though he could easily afford to. Right now, Beutner just wants to introduce himself.
On a Wednesday morning in June, Beutner headed to the Felix auto dealership, downtown. While he was at City Hall, he helped create a partnership that provided LA Trade Tech students paid internships at area auto dealers. He's at Felix to get feedback on the program. Aside from an introduction and a few questions, he's mostly here to listen.
Oscar Albo, a student at LA Trade Tech graduated from the program. "I completed 150 hours with this internship at Felix Chevrolet," he said. "And I got hired, permanently."
Beutner is a listener, and that might be why he's been called dull, or low key by reporters. In a world of outsized political personalities, he's softspoken and relaxed. And on stage, the candidate often defaults to a kind of semi-slouched, hands-in-pockets stance when he isn't speaking. It makes you wonder if he's ever been coached on that sort of a thing.
"We have a city that's broken," said Beutner. "We have trouble balancing our budgets. We're not balancing our budgets today. We're not fixing potholes. I grew up in the midwest, you get potholes when you get a freezing and thawing during the course of the winter. You get potholes here because we're not doing our job. I think the city is at a point where they need to ask: what do we want in a mayor? I think it starts on substance, and you build on that."
Maybe that attitude could work in his favor. After all, the public isn't afraid to rally behind a low key pragmatist, even for the presidency.