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LA Mayoral Candidates Try To Persuade Voters To Pay Attention

Los Angeles mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel had similar records while serving together on the City Council.
Los Angeles mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel had similar records while serving together on the City Council.

The candidates have spent a record amount of money. They've stumped hard in a city that isn't easy to campaign in — 470 square miles sliced up into neighborhoods divided by a web of freeways.

Yet despite nearly $20 million in spending in the March primary alone, turnout is expected to be low next Tuesday in Los Angeles when voters go to the polls to pick a new mayor to replace the term-limited Antonio Villaraigosa.

As a result, City Councilman Eric Garcetti and his opponent, City Controller Wendy Greuel, are engaged in an all-out blitz for votes across the sprawling city.

With a recent poll showing a tightening in the nonpartisan race between the two Democrats, who had similar records while serving together on the City Council, Garcetti and Greuel have been eager to court South LA's influential African-American and Hispanic vote.

"Welcome. Buenos dias," Garcetti said, as he shook hands with attendees before a forum one night this week in Watts.

Both smiled and swayed to the gospel music inside the historic Macedonia Baptist Church as the event was beginning.

After a few minutes of singing, as Hispanic voters tried on their headphones to listen to translation, it was down to business.

"Tonight we are gathered in Watts because Watts is one of those places in our city that has been left out, forgotten and forsaken," decried the church's pastor, Shane Scott, who introduced Garcetti and Greuel to the audience.

Both are seen as outsiders in neighborhoods like this. Garcetti represents Hollywood on the City Council, and Greuel hails from the suburban, and predominantly white, San Fernando Valley.

But Garcetti has Mexican heritage and has picked up key endorsements from Hispanic leaders. For her part, Greuel often talks about working for popular former Mayor Tom Bradley and President Bill Clinton, as she mentioned during the forum.

"It is about jobs," Greuel said. "President Clinton the other day said at an event ... when I introduced him that there's no better social program than a good job."

Business Vs. Labor

It's hard to miss the Clinton-Obama overtones in the race.

The former president has endorsed Greuel, a former Clinton administration staffer and early Hillary Clinton supporter in the 2008 presidential election. She also has the backing of the city's powerful unions. Garcetti was co-chairman of President Obama's local campaign in 2008, and he has accused Greuel of being beholden to big labor on the stump and in ads. She in return paints him as the candidate of big developers.

Right now, though, the once-blighted Hollywood neighborhood is booming with construction and buzzing with tourists.

Campaigning there recently, Garcetti picked up the endorsement of the Hollywood Chamber, whose director, Leron Gubler, gave him a replica of the famous Hollywood sign, saying: "When you think of Eric Garcetti, he's helped put the opportunity back in Hollywood."

Garcetti, son of former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who led the O.J. Simpson prosecution, used the occasion to tout his business-friendly record while on the City Council.

"It shows that even in tough times, we can create jobs, help businesses and revitalize neighborhoods," Garcetti said in an interview. "It's what I'm going to do across Los Angeles, block by block, one neighborhood at a time."

Greuel sounds similar themes about revitalizing LA at her events. And like Garcetti, she doesn't miss a chance to talk about how she hopes to turn around the city's troubled schools.

Low Turnout

Outside a school board meeting downtown this week — the agenda of which read like a laundry list of the district's problems — Greuel shook hands with supporters and union members wearing purple T-shirts.

"Being the mayor of the second-largest city in the country, you have a lot of power, you have a lot of voice, and we've seen it grow over the years," she later told NPR. "The mayors have taken a greater role each day, and I'm going to continue in that vein."

But the reality is, unlike in New York or Chicago, LA's mayor has little actual power, especially when it comes to schools. It's among the reasons observers say the current race hasn't garnered much interest. There's even been little buzz over the fact that Greuel could become the city's first female mayor. In the March primary, barely 20 percent of registered voters bothered to turn out.

Back at the forum in Watts, Garcetti said he was perplexed by what he called the perception that there's little excitement or nothing at stake in the race.

"Thank you for showing the media that's here and everybody else that we do care about our city, we do care about this race, and there is excitement about Los Angeles," he told the audience, who erupted in applause.

But if the views of people like Scott, the pastor, are any indication, it's clear the next mayor still has a lot to do to repair age-old rifts between tough neighborhoods like this and City Hall.

Outside the church, Scott pointed to an alley full of garbage, as a LA Police Department chopper buzzed low in the sky.

"After we go to the polls, whether Eric Garcetti wins or whether Wendy Greuel wins, we need action," he said.

Specifically, Scott said his neighborhood needs a master plan, infrastructure and, above all, attention.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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