This LA Story Wasn't A Political Thriller

This LA Story Wasn't A Political Thriller

By Bill Whalen - March 7, 2013

On Tuesday, California’s largest city went to the polls to narrow choices for its next mayor. What did that vote tell us about the state of campaigns in the Golden State?

It’s not good.

Here are three takeaways from the Los Angeles mayoral primary:

1) The Big Chill. The weather in Los Angeles this week has been unseasonably cool; voter interest was sub-Arctic. Sure, history will be made in L.A. come May 21, when voters choose from the two Democrats who survived Tuesday’s first round of voting. City Controller Wendy Greuel would be the city’s first woman mayor. City Councilman Eric Garcetti would be the city’s first Jewish elected mayor (Garcetti’s mother is Jewish; his father, a former county district attorney, is of Mexican and Italian decent). That said, these weren’t scintillating choices in a town where charm and personality go a long way. Garcetti was president of the city council for six year. Greuel cut her political teeth working for former Mayor Tom Bradley. Solid resumes, yes, but dull. Add to the mix another candidate, Councilwoman Jan Perry, who was a product of the political machine and the choice for Angelenos wasn’t scintillating. Thus a paltry turnout of only 16%. In a city and county of 4.7 million registered voters, not a single mayoral candidate was able to top 100,000 votes. The good news: there is competition in Los Angeles at this time of the year that’s fraught with intrigue, drama and media attention. Unfortunately, it’s the Oscars – not city politics.

2) No Ascent for King James. Actually, there was one candidate in this race who wasn’t part of L.A.’s political establishment: Kevin James, a Republican and former AM radio talk show host (not to be confused with the same-name actor). James was the lone mayoral candidate (once former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner dropped out of the contest) bold enough to tilt at windmills and tap into everyday LA frustrations. Openly gay and an AIDS activists, he broke the Republican mold. What James couldn’t break was a third-place tie with Perry, meaning his “torch and pitchfork” base perhaps wasn’t as motivated as James anticipated. Another way to look at is the difference between 2013 and 1993 – the last Los Angeles chose a Republican mayor. The winner in that election, Richard Riordan benefitted from a change-ready electorate (it was the first time in 24 years that Tom Bradley wasn’t on the ballot) and an election dominated by the issue of crime. Present-day Los Angeles has loads of problems, but no one fresh wound like the 1992 riots, thus making it more difficult for an outsider like James to tap into voter frustration.

3) A: Once Again, the Scarlet Letter. Last fall, Californians approved Proposition 30, a sales and tax increased pitched by Gov. Jerry Brown as a necessary means for plugging the state’s budget hole. Brown’s measure won by an unexpectedly large measure, prompting some to suggest that California had entered a new progressive era in which tax increases no longer were political road kill. That conventional wisdom may need some revision after Tuesday’s vote, in which Angelenos soundly defeated Measure A, a half-cent increase to the city’s sales tax. Last November, Prop 30 prevailed in part by making a hard emotional sale about schools. Measure A was little different in that is also tried to push voters’ buttons by cloaking itself in law enforcement. So why did Measure A go down in flames (it suffered a 10-point loss) while Prop 30 prospered (it won by over 10 points)? Proponents will vote low turnout (though a race dominated by Democrat candidates should attract tax-friendly voters). Also, there wasn’t the same tailwind as in November 2012, when President Obama was at the top of the ticket. Here’s yet another theory: having just raised rates at the state and federal level, with April 15 fast approaching, maybe an early March election isn’t the right time to be pitching yet another tax increase in economically-strapped Los Angeles.

How, then, to get the good people of Los Angeles better engaged in mayor elections? Try getting Ben Affleck on the ticket. Otherwise, with lackluster insiders dominating the ballots, Angelenos will continue to tell their candidates to “Argo f— themselves”. 

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Stanford-based Hoover Institution, where he tracks California and national politics, and from April to October is an unapologetic  “seamhead.”

This article was originally published March 6, 2013, and is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution

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