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Union power at issue as Garcetti elected LA mayor

May 22, 2013

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The incoming mayor of Los Angeles was able to defeat a fellow Democrat by depicting her as a pawn of utility union bosses in a city long friendly to labor, an outcome expected to echo beyond California as unions nationwide face threats to their clout.

With all precincts reporting Wednesday, Councilman Eric Garcetti defeated city Controller Wendy Greuel, 54 percent to 46 percent, in the matchup of two occasional allies at City Hall.

Garcetti has his own labor ties but said the difference in the contest was his grassroots support and “not any power brokers.” His TV campaign ads relentlessly pounded Greuel as “DWP’s mayor,” a reference to the Department of Water and Power, where workers financed ads trying to install Greuel at City Hall.

He told reporters Wednesday that voters recoiled at heavy union spending on Greuel’s behalf and sent a message that “this election was never for sale.”

Garcetti’s victory amounted to blowback against workers at an agency often seen as indifferent to customers and that has had generous wages and benefits, even during tough economic times when the city had to make deep cuts.

“The single biggest issue was who was beholden to the unions the most, and that is the single-biggest reason Wendy Greuel lost,” said Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel.

“It becomes a signal that if you become the candidate identified as the government-union candidate, it’s going to be hard to get elected,” even in heavily Democratic Los Angeles, Steel said.

Greuel’s close relations with DWP workers allowed Garcetti to run against the status quo, making him appealing to conservatives and Republicans who might have otherwise defaulted to Greuel or stayed away, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

“Labor is now so strong and successful in Los Angeles that it has the potential to be characterized as the establishment,” Sonenshein said. “This is a reflection of the kind of political flip side of labor becoming much more powerful.”

The outcome is certain to be scrutinized for what it says about labor, following protests in recent years over the passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan and Indiana and clashes over collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Garcetti, 42, will take the helm at the troubled City Hall on July 1, replacing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after his two uneven terms.

Garcetti told reporters he would focus on the local economy “like a laser beam” and try to recover jobs lost in the recession. He ticked off a laundry list of goals, from getting all city workers to contribute to health care costs to paving streets.

“We have to fix the basic things,” he said.

His mayoralty will bring a sharp shift in style. The mayor-elect has jammed with pop star Moby, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and can talk urban development or summon up his old break-dance moves with equal aplomb. Actress Salma Hayek, a supporter, said Garcetti “can do it all well.”

Though his margin of victory was comfortable, it was not impressive.

Preliminary returns showed he captured the job with a meager 182,000 votes in a city of nearly 4 million people and 1.8 million registered voters.

It ranked among the lower turnouts on record in the city long known to shrug at local politics. He said he wanted to find ways to boost participation.

Greuel, 51, thanked supporters for bringing her tantalizingly close to becoming the city’s first woman mayor and urged them to line up with Garcetti.

“I may not have been able to break through the glass ceiling last night, but you sure helped me put a crack in it,” she said.

With Italian and Mexican roots from his father, Garcetti shares a Latino heritage and a command of Spanish with Villaraigosa. But Garcetti has a far different resume than the exiting mayor — the product of a broken home from the tough streets east of downtown, with an outsized personality and never-quit smile.

Garcetti is the son of a former district attorney who grew up in the tony Encino enclave in the San Fernando Valley. He attended Columbia University and enjoys playing jazz piano.

During the campaign, he often envisioned a gentler Los Angeles in which kids bike around neighborhoods and enjoy playing baseball and eating ice cream.

A steady stream of negative advertising from the campaigns and outside groups helped obscure the candidates’ promises about free-flowing traffic, new jobs and better schools.

The lack of public interest came despite the high stakes.

A key issue has been the city’s shaky $7.7 billion budget and the prospect of living with less. Spending is projected to outpace revenue for years, and rising pension and retiree health care bills for municipal workers threaten money that could otherwise go to libraries, tree-trimming and street repairs.

Villaraigosa urged his successor to try to block a 5.5 percent pay increase for civilian employees, while new contracts are on the horizon.

Greuel and Garcetti emerged from a March primary in which no candidate secured the majority needed to win outright, leading to Tuesday’s runoff. More than $30 million was spent overall in the mayoral contest.

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