Wednesday, May 22, 2013

To the many annoyances of life in Los Angeles – traffic, traffic and, well, traffic – toss in this gem: on Tuesday night, Angelenos headed to the polls for the third time in less than seven months.

Not that the good people of Los Angeles have an aversion to democracy. The problem is, their civic leaders don’t seem to understand the concept of a lengthy breather between elections. On the first Tuesday in March, L.A. held a primary to winnow the field for its city office-seekers, include the next mayor of America’s second-largest metropolis. On Tuesday, the two finalists for that office faced off in the runoff.

The winner and mayor-elect: City Councilman Eric Garcetti – mercifully, by a comfortable near-8% margin that avoided what could have been a three-week wait while the city recounted the votes.

What can we can away from Tuesday’s vote?

The Awfulness of the Timing. It wasn’t as if the L.A. mayor’s race began the day after the Obama-Romney referendum. Candidates danced around each other for the better part of two years. Not that the public cared all that much. The March primary produced the city’s worst turnout for a non-incumbent race since 1978. A week later, and again in mid-May, fewer than 10% of voters bothered to turn out in a special election for a state Senate district that covers portions of eastern L.A. County and the Inland Empire. Theories abound as to why L.A. voters are so blasé 2013. It could be that the local electorate – remember, this is less a city than it is a quirky expanse of diverse communities running north-south and east-east – doesn’t feel as personally invested in its mayor as, say, New York or Los Angeles. And, we know anecdotally, some voters stayed away from the May vote, thinking matters were settled in March. Why does a low turnout matter? When, as in this case, it means a new L.A. mayor receiving the fewest votes in 75 years, there’s not much in the way of a mandate to claim. Garcetti received only 181,000 votes, in a city with more than 2 million registered voters. Not exactly a tailwind.

Or, it could have something to do with:

The Awfulness of the Choices. On paper, this was a historic vote for L.A. The winner would either be the city’s first female mayor, or the city’s first elected Jewish mayor. But that’s not what most voters saw. Wendy Gruel, the city controller who started out in politics as an aide to L.A.’s legendary mayor Tom Bradley, campaigned as a daughter of the San Fernando Valley – albeit, a Valley Girl deeply concern about black voters, thanks to her Bradley years. Instead, she was bogged down by her ties to public-employee unions who underwrote her media effort – political death in the more conservative Valley. Garcetti ran hard on his Hispanic roots (the Garcetti family emigrated from Italy to Mexico; his father, Gil Garcetti, is the former county d.a. who prosecuted O.J. Simpson). He was dragged down by the impression that rhetorically he’s too commitment-averse. The bottom line: there was no Magic Johnson in the field. There was no magic, period. What should have been a serious discussion flirting with a financial collapse instead was a content-light affair that some deemed America’s silliest election”the two Democratic rivals so like-minded that the press dubbed the race “Gruecetti”.

Something else we learned:

L.A. Is Not Bill Clinton’s Town. Gruel, who also served in the Clinton Administration, turned to the former president for his help. In theory, it was smart politics: surveys showed that a Bill Clinton endorsement moved voters in her direction. As voting day approached, the Gruel campaign rolled out a Clinton telephone robocall – his recorded voice trying to rally the masses. It didn’t work, just as his support of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom didn’t pan out in California’s 2010 gubernatorial primary – or, for that matter, Clinton shaman James Carville couldn’t work the same miracles for Democrats looking to succeed Tom Bradley back in the city’s 1993 mayor’s race (Bradley had taken a pass on seeking a sixth term as L.A.’s mayor). California’s been good to the Clintons – Bill carried the state twice in presidential elections; Hillary bested Obama in the Golden State in 2008.  But in L.A., the name doesn’t seem to open doors . . . to political office.

Checking the Republican Pulse. There were other California votes in Tuesday – the most notable one being a special election in California’s 16th State Senate District, which covers the southern part of the state’s Central Valley. For a struggling state GOP, the contest offered a chance not only to pick up a Democratic seat, but to road test strategies for 2014. The party ran a strong candidate – Andy Vidak, a cherry farmer who lost a 2010 congressional race by less than 4%. His platform, in a district where Democrats enjoy a 30% edge in voter registration: create jobs and balance the budget; invest in education; deliver more reliable water supplies and stop the high-speed rail. Democrats countered by heavily targeting Latino voters.  The good news for the California GOP: Vidak won. And, by receiving over 50% of the vote, he avoided a July runoff that would have problematic in that, unlike Tuesday’s vote, the non-Republican bloc would not have been split among three Democrats and a Progressive Freedom candidate.

It’s a sign of life for the state GOP. Which is more than can be said about Los Angeles politics these days.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen