LA's March primary more a referendum on Garcetti than a major race

Mayor Eric Garcetti speaking in Little Tokyo on Oct. 29, 2016. Garcetti is seeking reelection in the March 7 primary. He is competing against a field of 10 candidates.
Mayor Eric Garcetti speaking in Little Tokyo on Oct. 29, 2016. Garcetti is seeking reelection in the March 7 primary. He is competing against a field of 10 candidates.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles voters will get to decide whether to re-elect Mayor Eric Garcetti in the March 7 primary election when the well-funded incumbent faces a crowded field of candidates posing minor competition.

While Garcetti has gained national attention — speaking at the Democratic National Convention and landing on Hillary Clinton’s list of potential picks for vice president — his reelection campaign hasn't gained much of an audience. But then neither have the campaigns for his 10 challengers.

"I think that this has the potential to be one of the least competitive mayor’s races in recent memory," said Roy Behr, a Democratic political consultant who has worked with former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The election has been shaping into more of a referendum on a second term for Garcetti than a contest among strong competitors. So, how well do voters think he's delivered on campaign promises made when he ran for mayor in 2013?

Back then, KPCC asked voters in a campaign called "Dear Mayor" to tell us what issues they wanted the new mayor to tackle. Mt. Washington resident David Matsu, one of the voters we heard from, wanted the mayor to make L.A.’s streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Is he satisfied with Garcetti's actions on street safety as the mayor seeks re-election?

"Beyond sort of events to bring attention to the issue, I don’t think I’ve really seen much happen," Matsu said recently.

Some take selfies, others pass by

That mixed reaction is what greeted Garcetti as he walked through Union Station recently. Some rushed up to the mayor to say hello and take a selfie. But most people at the busy station walked right on by; many didn’t seem to recognize the mayor. 

Garcetti lays out his case for his reelection by claiming such successes as increasing visitors to Los Angeles and bringing the unemployment rate down to 5 percent. He credits his leadership for the 150,000 new businesses in the city and touts the uptick in jobs. 

"I think the progress of the last few years is undeniable," Garcetti said. "We hadn't had a new jobs peak since 1992, roughly, since after the L.A. riots. We never recovered for 20 years, but we have this past year more jobs than we've ever had." 

The government doesn't track jobs by city, so it's unclear exactly how the mayor is measuring job numbers over time. But the city of Los Angeles does currently have a 5 percent unemployment rate, according to the most recent numbers available. That's down from 6 percent in December 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

As for tourism, the number of people visiting the city has been on the rise. Visitors have increased from 42.2 million in 2013 to 47.3 million in 2016, according to the latest available numbers from the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. 

The mayor heads into the March election also promoting a couple of political wins. In November, voters approved two county measures he prominently backed – Measure M to boost taxes for transportation and Measure HHH to address homelessness. He said now that funding is in place, he wants to further work on these issues if he’s reelected.

To avoid a general election runoff on May 16, Garcetti will need 50 percent of the vote in the primary plus one vote, a likely outcome if a major opponent does not rise up from the crowded field.

Behr said as he sees it, Garcetti is in the unusual position of running as an incumbent mayoral candidate who has irritated very few groups. This gives him a strong advantage heading into the March election.

For better or worse, Behr said, Garcetti has taken a cautious approach to the mayorship, a sharp contrast to some of his predecessors. 

But for many people, a mayor's success is measured by his ability to deliver basic city services, like whether potholes get fixed.

"Maybe they are, maybe they’re not, depends on your neighborhood. But at least they're probably not getting worse. And in politics, sometimes that’s good enough," he said. 

Money: one of incumbent's advantages

A look at the campaign finance records shows Garcetti out-fundraising his closest challenger, Mitchell Schwartz, by more than 8 to 1. Garcetti rejected city candidate matching funds, which lifts the limit on the amount he can spend on his campaign.

As of Jan. 21, he had $2,424,200 in cash on hand, having spent $706,500.

Schwartz accepted matching funds and had just $35,500 in cash on hand, having spent $397,900 — a long distance from where Garcetti's at in his fundraising.

Dan Schnur, University of Southern California political science professor, said given these rocky political times, he wouldn’t completely count out Schwartz. 

"In a post-Bernie Sanders, post-Donald Trump political environment where grassroots activists from across the idealogical spectrum have become so much more aggressive, that is the type of landscape on which a challenger like Schwartz might be able to mount more of an effort," Schnur said. 

That approach is exactly what Schwartz is trying to capitalize on. In January, he held a fundraiser at the Echoplex, a music club in Echo Park known for dance parties and indie music acts.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Mitchell Schwartz at a fundraising concert in Echo Park, Los Angeles on Jan. 10, 2017.
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Mitchell Schwartz at a fundraising concert in Echo Park, Los Angeles on Jan. 10, 2017.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Schwartz spent most of the night on the edges of the dance floor where a disco ball sparkled overhead. The crowd was mostly early 20-somethings, a group Schwartz says he’s trying to recruit as supporters. He needs both votes and campaign donations. 

The Democrat said he voted for Bernie Sanders in California’s primary. He wants to overhaul the Department of Water and Power and reduce the city’s pension costs.

Schwartz said he’d be a much more aggressive mayor than what voters are used to with Garcetti. 

"I want to shake things up. City Hall is a little too comfortable. I think it’s gotten a little too corrupt, too cozy there and I think that people’s interests aren’t being looked after," he said. "I think I’d be much more activist than he is."

Garcetti counters that his accomplishments show his strength on the job. 

"You know big and bold doesn’t always mean drawing blood and punching someone in the nose. That sells papers, that might excite partisans, but I think people elected me to get results," he said. 

Garcetti fans should be mindful that the mayor is widely expected to pursue higher office in the not-too-distant future. He's been talked about as a potential candidate for governor or perhaps the U.S. Senate should Dianne Feinstein retire.

He told KPCC he's not closing off any possibilities, but he’s currently planning for his second term. 

"You know I never make promises about...what I'll do," he said. "But I can honestly look anybody in the eye and say I'm not looking at anything else. I believe you run one election at a time and I love this job."