This article appears in this week’s magazine.
Labor unions spent millions. The two candidates dragged each other down in a vicious negative campaign. And comedian Will Ferrell promised free waffles for everyone. Yet in the end, the mayoral election in Los Angeles turned out to be a Southland snoozer, with fewer than 1 in 5 registered Angelenos even bothering to vote. Their low turnout choice: 42 year-old Eric Garcetti.
In his victory speech, the piano-playing former city-council president promised to take the city back to the future. “Los Angeles is ready to put the recession in the rearview mirror,” he said, “and become the city of opportunity that I grew up in once again.”
But Garcetti’s victory, which followed the most expensive campaign in Los Angeles history, will go down as one defined by the hardscrabble politics of the past. In addition to the roughly $15 million raised by both candidates, outside groups largely funded by local labor unions kicked in almost $10 million, mostly for negative ads, which dominated the debate. In the end, only 19% of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters cast ballots.
A Rhodes scholar, Garcetti is the son of a former L.A. district attorney and has a mixed heritage reflective of the city he will lead. His father’s family, of Italian descent, emigrated from Mexico after the 1910 revolution, and his mother traces her roots to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. During the campaign, he joked in Spanish that he was “mestizo doble,” or double mixed, and boasted of his other credentials, including his service as a naval reserve officer.
He ran against Wendy Greuel, the city controller, who once worked for the Hollywood studio DreamWords SKG. Both candidates were liberal Democrats, agreeing on most big issues, so the campaign often devolved into sniping over character and local labor issues. Greuel was forced to distance herself from nearly $8 million in outside support for her campaign, mostly from labor, including the union that represents employees of the department of water and power and police and firefighters. (Garcetti attracted less than $2 million in outside donations, including funds from local teamsters and longshoremen.)
Garcetti can’t waste time celebrating. His first big test will come in January, when the city faces contract negotiations with many of the same public-employee unions that opposed him.