A Test for Eric Garcetti's Super Power

Eric Garcetti spoke at last month's Treasure of Los Angeles event and urged the audience to vote for Measure EE.

DTLA—Eric Garcetti has a super power.

He can’t fly like Superman. He can’t run speedily like Flash. He can’t blow up everything in an instant in a TV interview, like former Lakers President Magic Johnson did recently.

But Garcetti possesses an ability that, in 21st century Los Angeles, is far more valuable: He can get a measure, seemingly any measure, passed by voters.

In an era where government increasingly turns to the ballot box to get big things done — or turns to the ballot box to get the money to get big things done — this is a vital skill, and Garcetti may be the best at it that Los Angeles has ever seen. He was elected in 2013, and four times since then he has served as the public face of a contested, make-or-break ballot proposition or measure. In three of those instances he was seeking a yes vote, and used a combination of personal charisma, political prowess and arm-twisting to make things go his way. On the fourth occasion he was out to convince Angelenos to shoot down a controversial measure, and he won handily. (There have been plenty of other measures or candidates he backed, many of which won and a few that lost--including recent failed school board candidate Heather Repenning--but these four were the instances in which Garcetti most notably put himself behind a cause.)

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I’ve never been inside Garcetti’s mayoral man cave, but I’d wager that on the wall across from the signed photos of 2020 Democratic party presidential contenders, there’s a case holding a red, white and blue cape adorned with the letters SBBM, for Super Ballot Box Man. Opponents must shudder when he puts it on.

Garcetti’s 4-0 record in high-profile proposition races is pretty sweet. But this week, the mayor faces his sternest test yet. It’s Super Ballot Box Man vs. the Business Brigade.

The stakes are high, and come Tuesday, June 4, we’ll see just how powerful and influential Garcetti really is. If voters approve Measure EE, a parcel tax that would raise $500 million a year for local schools, then Garcetti continues his unbeaten streak. But a coalition of powerful business groups is spending big — in both cash and political capital — to knock him down a peg.

Going Undefeated

To understand Garcetti’s victories, you first have to flash back to a previous failure. That involved Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Actually, AnVil was involved in a lot of failures, but this one was special.

In 2008, county voters passed Measure R, enacting a half-cent sales tax to fund Metro projects. The three-decade assessment was Villaraigosa’s greatest victory, and four years later he returned with Measure J; this would have super-sized the tax, extending it for an additional 30 years. But voters narrowly rejected it. Cue extensive whining.

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Can one blame the loss exclusively on AnVil? No. But he was traveling all over the country, stumping for Democratic candidates in far-flung states, and some locals grumbled that if the mayor had been in town and focused on L.A., Measure J would have passed.

Garcetti learned from AnVil’s mistake and stumped like heck when a second-chance effort, Measure M, hit the ballot in 2016. The mayor was everywhere, and although it required the high bar approval of two-thirds of voters, ultimately 71% of the people said yes. It’s been a huge win, the financial fuel for Garcetti’s push to build 28 transit projects by the opening of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Measure M was actually part of a double-barreled Garcetti victory. In the run-up to that same November election, the mayor was campaigning hard for Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to foment the creation of 10,000 permanent supportive housing units. We look back on it now as a slam dunk — it got a whopping 76% approval — but at the time no one had ever tried to persuade local voters to tax themselves to help homeless individuals. Garcetti was a big part of why people said yes.

Another Happy #MayoralThanksgiving

He scored two more key wins the following year. Measure H, a sort of companion to Prop HHH, was a quarter-cent sales tax to fund services for homeless individuals, and was expected to raise more than $350 million annually. It’s a county effort, rather than one just for city voters, and leaders including Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were out rallying support, but Garcetti was the name most people knew. Again, it needed two-thirds approval. Again, it got there, with more than 69% of voters saying yes.

The March 2017 election also saw Garcetti oppose Measure S. Known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, it was pitched by supporters as a way to improve City Hall’s wackadoodle planning and approvals process, which frequently seems to be controlled by affluent developers and their also affluent fixers. But opponents charged that the slow-growth proposal would kneecap construction in L.A.

Garcetti vociferously opposed it and raised a lot of money to fight it. On election day it was gutted, getting support from only 29% of voters.

Garcetti wasn’t the only high-profile politician pushing the first three initiatives or opposing Measure S. Plenty of other people and groups, both in front of and behind the scenes, were involved in the campaigns. Garcetti didn’t win anything solo.

But as a mayor adept at using all kinds of media, he was a primary driver in each race. If any didn’t go his way, he’d take the hit. So he also gets the credit for a perfect slate.

Money Matters

When it comes to approving or defeating a ballot measure, the hard work takes place well before voters hit the polls. Ultimate success depends on rallying troops and raising money. Coincidentally, those are two things that special interest groups excel at.

Garcetti has consistently been able to convince labor and business groups — the two sectors with the most money and resources — that what is good for him is also good for them. Time and again the triad of the mayor, the business sector and the unions have been successful.

What makes Measure EE unique is that, for the first time in recent memory, the business brigade has gone rogue; it has shirked off the unity theme and is forcefully battling something Garcetti is backing. There are dueling campaigns and websites over the measure that would direct billions to LAUSD and local charter schools over 12 years. The past partnership is, for the moment, dead, and some relationships may be permanently scorched

It’s the political equivalent of the 2008 movie The Dark Knight, where Batman partners with District Attorney Harvey Dent to rid Gotham City of organized crime. Everything is peachy until it isn’t, and once Dent transmogrifies into Harvey Two-Face, he tries to rip apart everything the Caped Crusader holds dear.

Is this an overstatement? Maybe, but it’s fun to picture Garcetti in a Batman cowl.

Then again, maybe it’s not an overstatement, because a battalion of business groups is fighting tooth and nail against Measure EE. They charge that it is flawed, won’t help kids as intended and would unfairly burden large property owners. According to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, the No on EE side has raised about $1.65 million.

Garcetti, on the other hand, is using his political capital. Ever since he helped resolve the six-day January teachers strike and bridged the divide between the union United Teachers Los Angeles and the LAUSD administration, he has morphed into the Education Mayor. He hit the subject during his April State of the City speech. Last month, he passionately talked up Measure EE when he spoke at the Treasures of Los Angeles lunch, an event hosted by business advocacy group the Central City Association that drew more than 1,000 of the city’s affluent and powerful.

“We will collectively say that these kids matter,” Garcetti told the expensively suited crowd, “or we will leave them collectively dangling in the wind.”

Some say that talk is cheap — the money the Yes on EE side is raising is anything but. The pro-EE camp had pulled in almost $5.4 million in the reporting period that ended May 18, according to the Ethics Commission, and documents since that date and through May 24 show donations of another $2.3 million.

That’s a gobsmacking total of about $7.7 million. The big givers include entertainment industry titans Jeffrey Katzenberg ($250,000) and J.J. Abrams ($125,000), as well as philanthropist Eli Broad ($250,000) and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer ($500,000).

The run-up to election day should be amazing, as a full-bore anti-EE campaign could lead to serious post-race friction between the business community and the mayor’s office, particularly if the measure is shot down.

The one thing you can be sure of is that Super Ballot Box Man will unleash all his powers. The question is, will that be enough?


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