By Tom De Simone
Dear Fellow Angelenos,
I just returned from another evening of phone banking for Eric Garcetti and since I’ve been calling complete strangers, trying to convince them to vote for Garcetti for Mayor, I figured I should certainly reach out to my friends as well. We are fast approaching a mayoral election (Tues. May 21) in which the media would have you think there is no use even bothering to vote because the two candidates are mere carbon copies with little to distinguish them. Yet, while there are several similarities between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, there are key differences that make this race important and one in which I urge you to vote for Eric Garcetti to be our next Mayor of Los Angeles.
Now I am the first to admit that neither of these candidates is perfect. I had been a huge fan of Austin Beutner’s short-lived campaign for mayor, as I was inspired by his common-sense message about making Los Angeles work again and his track record of getting things done. When Beutner left the race, I was a bit underwhelmed by the remaining candidates. In the Primary, I voted for Emanuel Pleitez, in part because it was a foregone conclusion that Wendy and Eric would make the runoff.
(Click here to read Brigham Yen’s one-on-one interview with Austin Beutner on Downtown LA, transit, and his goal to bring jobs back to Los Angeles.)
While it is easy to ridicule elected officials (or anyone for that matter) for a foolish decision or a mistake, one must take a look at the whole person and the totality of their actions when assessing a candidate’s capacity for the office they seek. Garcetti has his flaws: I disagreed when he set out the welcome mat for the Occupy L.A. crowd at City Hall, which caused $400,000 in damage to public property; and when he (and his opponent, Wendy Greuel, too) approved pay raises of 25% over 5 years for city employees, just as the economy was about to crash. The city is now struggling to balance its budget because of the impact of these raises and will continue to struggle for years to come.
Yet disagreement doesn’t warrant abstaining from the political process, as an astonishing 79% of Angelenos did in the Primary Election. Our city is in desperate need of civic engagement and the next mayor will face numerous challenges and opportunities that could define L.A. for years to come. In many ways, the General Election campaign has clarified the differences between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel and proven why we need Eric to be our next mayor. Specifically, we need to support Eric for the following four reasons:
We Need Leadership: The greatest thing about L.A. is that it holds so much promise; the worst thing about L.A. is that it lacks the leadership and coordination to realize that promise. In part, this is because the Office of Mayor of Los Angeles is a relatively weak elected position as compared to the position in other big cities. In Los Angeles, the Mayor shares significant powers with the City Council and many responsibilities are split between the City and the County – two separate jurisdictions with separate elected leaders. While some have argued the nature of the Office of Mayor warrants a technocrat as mayor, I believe the exact opposite is true. The Mayor of Los Angeles needs to be a visionary who can lead this fractured metropolis by inspiring other elected officials who do hold power to help implement the mayor’s vision. Think of the way (despite his flaws) that Mayor Villaraigosa organized disparate elected bodies and jurisdictions to make public transit a regional priority. L.A. is now adding hundreds of miles of rail lines, bus lanes and bike paths across the region. It was the Mayor of L.A. who made this happen!
Garcetti has displayed the ability to be the type of leader we need. First, Garcetti has proven that he can build coalitions. He has worked across jurisdictions, for example, bringing together the city and school district to develop parks and community centers. This is exactly the kind of collaboration a mayor must pursue to get more out of our limited resources. Second, he spent 6 of his 12 years on the City Council, serving as President of the Council, which put him at the center of making difficult decisions that impact the entire city (e.g. budget negotiations). Third, while many, including myself, have accused him of lacking a backbone at times, Eric has boldly pushed politically sensitive causes. For example, he was front-and-center when developing a new community plan for Hollywood, which calls for greater density around transit stops (exactly the place where growth should go). These efforts faced opposition from many residents and homeowner groups, but concentrating growth in our urban cores (downtown, Hollywood, along train lines) is what the future of L.A. needs to look like and Eric was an early leader on this front.
We Must Solve the City’s Structural Deficit: The City of L.A. has a structural deficit that threatens to cripple our future. You see the results every day: potholes, broken sidewalks, reduced hours at parks and libraries. This will continue as far as the eye can see if our leaders do not make tough choices in the coming years. The city continues to take in less money than it needs to cover expenses. Since the recession began, the city has balanced its budget by cutting back on services, deferring maintenance, and obtaining concessions from the city’s workforce. Cutting services and deferring maintenance can only go on for so long. Did you know that the city has a 60-year backlog of street repairs! You might be dead before your already crumbling street gets repaired.
Fixing this problem will require new revenues and continued cuts. The biggest cuts will likely need to come from the city’s retirement costs. Roughly 90% of the city budget goes toward the cost of its workforce and retirees. The percent of the city budget going toward retiree pensions and health care has doubled over the last 7 years and will rise to 25% of the overall budget in the next 5 years. This is a true disaster in the making and it demands serious leadership. As President of the City Council, Eric Garcetti negotiated for reforms that helped to address this crisis and balance the budget. Mind you, Eric is a liberal, pro-union Democrat. Meanwhile, his opponent remained silent throughout the city’s budget crisis, despite her role as Controller – a position she could have leveraged to help address the city’s fiscal problems. As the L.A. Times noted, Garcetti “antagonized his allies in labor, not because he wanted to but because he saw that he had to. That fact undermines the too-common chatter that he lacks backbone.”
This structural deficit lies at the heart of one of the biggest issues in this race. The city’s budget crisis is probably the most commonly cited concern I hear from voters when I phone bank for Eric. Various unions representing the city’s public employees see this election as payback time for the tough budget choices that were made under the leadership of Garcetti and Mayor Villaraigosa. City unions, led by the DWP union, (whose members, by the way, earn 25% more in salary than comparable utility workers) have overwhelmed this election with record spending. Unions have now pumped about $4.5 million into the election to support Wendy Greuel, more than 5 times the amount of union money that has gone to Eric, who is actually the more liberal candidate. And guess what: union contracts are up for renewal next year, when a new mayor will have to negotiate with the unions regarding pay and pension packages. There is no certainty that Garcetti will be able to strike the necessary compromises with unions to ensure the long term fiscal security of our city, but given the amount of spending that the unions have directed toward Greuel, it is clear with whom they would prefer to negotiate.
We Need Economic Growth: Los Angeles is a notoriously unfriendly city for business. Just ask our friends who wanted to open a restaurant on Broadway and spent over a year trying to do so. They gave up, went to Pasadena, and were open within a few months. This is not a rare story. In fact, it is typical. And you can see it in the numbers. While places like Austin, Portland, the Bay Area and San Diego see growth in jobs and businesses, L.A. County has seen a net loss of jobs over the last 2 decades, while the population has grown by more than 1 million people in that same time. It is no wonder we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S.
Recession or no recession, L.A. desperately needs to attract new businesses that pay decent wages. This will not only provide jobs, but it will lead to overall economic growth and increase the city’s revenues to help improve services and maintenance of public spaces. During his time in office, Eric Garcetti’s council district was #1 in job growth. Was he responsible for this? No one ever is, but he certainly played an important role. He helped to attract new companies and facilitated key development projects. He pushed a 3-year business tax holiday for new firms moving into the city, because the city’s business tax has proven to be a major deterrent since so many neighboring cities have no such similar tax. He also structured important community benefits agreements for major projects so that public amenities could be enhanced and living wage jobs could result from the millions of new private investment that came into his district. This track record offers hope that he can do similar work on a citywide level.
We Must Improve L.A.’s Quality of Life: All of this comes down to the quality of life we experience in our city. After all, city government is that which is closest to our daily lives. If our Mayor doesn’t have vision and leadership, if he can’t balance the budget, or she can’t create jobs and living wages, this won’t be much of a city in which to live. And yet being mayor of a competitive city in the 21st century is about so much more than just police, potholes and parks. Los Angeles is fundamentally changing, and changing for the better! The city is being reborn before our very eyes. There are new train lines with housing and neighborhood shops above. More and more people are walking and biking to get around. There is a new energy and sense of civic identity in places like the new Grand Park downtown or the semi-annual CicLAvia experience. An understanding of and appreciation for this urban transformation is a critical characteristic that we need in our next mayor. No matter what you think about Eric Garcetti, there is no doubt that he understands the changing culture of L.A. better than his opponent. He embraces it and it is part of his DNA. He will continue to support this energy and culture as our city grows into a more livable and sustainable place.
There’s no guarantee of the type of leadership and success either of these two candidates will bring to the office of Mayor, but having seen Garcetti in action, I believe he is the one who shows signs of greatness ahead. He has taken risks and stood up when others were silent. Whether he will deliver as mayor is up to him as a leader and up to us as the citizenry that must hold our leaders accountable.
If you’ve had the patience to make it this far into this note, I hope you are now on board. I hope you will vote for Eric on May 21 and I hope you will stay involved in the life of our great city. No matter who wins this election, we need to breathe new life into our civic identity.
Tom De Simone is the COO and Vice President of Genesis LA