DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In March 2013, the city of Los Angeles became a ballot box laughingstock when only 21% of eligible voters participated in an election featuring an open mayor’s seat. Our status as a political punching bag continued two months later, when, in the runoff, nearly 77% of the populace decided that they had something, anything better to do than choose between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel.
The results were followed with resolute clucking from those in City Hall about the need to change the status quo. A shift in when Angelenos vote is coming, though because of some Spring Street machinations that won’t happen until 2020. The result is that, unless something incredibly unlikely occurs, in less than two years the 2013 election is going to look like a high point on the civic rollercoaster.
The 2017 citywide election could give new meaning to the phrase “civic embarrassment.” How bad will it be? We’re talking The Godfather III or McCourt-era Dodgers bad, the kind of result where you shake your head in awe and wonder how something with so much potential got so messed up.
It’s difficult to predict what a mass of voters will or won’t do 17 1/2 months from now. Still, the falling turnout of the past, combined with early steps in the political process and fundraising game, indicate that we are approaching what may be the worst city election ever.
Could turnout on March 7, 2017, fall below 17%? That’s not farfetched. Given that a lack of competitive contests could lead Angelenos to think their vote doesn’t matter, might you see 15% or fewer voters hit the polls? To quote Bugs Bunny in a decades-old cartoon, “You might rabbit, you might.”
If I just compared City Hall to a character from Looney Tunes, it was purely coincidental.
Money Changes Everything
What’s the biggest reason that the March 2017 election could be a political gutter ball? The answer is Mayor Eric Garcetti.
This has little to do with how Garcetti has fared. While he hasn’t suffered the early-term face plants experienced by his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, it’s hard to find any political observer who thinks hizzoner has done a fantabulous job. While Garcetti scored victories by taking important steps on earthquake preparedness and helping lead the City Hall charge to hike the city’s minimum wage, he has been dogged by crime hikes, a worsening homelessness crisis and a tendency on important matters to be quieter than a mouse wearing slippers walking on a floor made of marshmallows.
The Los Angeles Times recently gave Garcetti a C grade in its mid-term report card, leading to the new joke: What do Mayor Garcetti and Mercedes-Benz have in common? A: They both have a C class.
However, when it comes to raising money, Garcetti gets an A+.
Documents filed with the City Ethics Commission reveal that in the first six months of the year, Garcetti raised an astounding $2.227 million for his re-election campaign, and has more than $2 million in cash on hand. He shattered the first-term reporting period record of $1.63 million set by Villaraigosa in 2008.
Like a Dr. Seuss character, Garcetti raised money here, there and everywhere. According to Ethics Commission filings, he got the maximum individual donation of $1,400 from Eli Broad, Rick Caruso, SBE Entertainment honcho Sam Nazarian and Donald Trump (I made one of those up). He also received heavy backing from Hollywood, with $1,400 from Dreamworks partners Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, “Weeds” and “Orange Is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan, and J.J. Abrams, the director of films including the upcoming Star Wars feature, which just proves that The Force is with Garcetti.
Remember that trip the mayor took to Washington, D.C. in June, right before the Police Commission announced its findings on the shooting of Ezell Ford by LAPD officers in South Los Angeles? Garcetti drew flack for it, but he also made bank, as his war chest boasts $21,800 given during June by people who live in Washington and nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia.
This is to be expected, and a big part of being a first-term mayor is raising cash so you can also be a second-term mayor. Yet while the money mountain is good for Garcetti, the downside for Angelenos comes in that his fundraising prowess decreases the likelihood of a reputable challenger entering the race. A serious opponent would force the mayor to defend his record, his choices and his leadership style. With only token candidates, he can skate.
If Garcetti had only raised, say, $158 and a crate of Go-Gurt, then oft-discussed figures such as Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, businessman Caruso, Council President Herb Wesson or former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky might enter. Garcetti’s $2.227 million war chest, however, is the political equivalent of The Wall on “Game of Thrones,” and communicates to any interested foe that trying to topple the well-funded, sitting mayor would be a gargantuan, frightfully expensive and probably failed endeavor.
For any serious candidate, the better option is letting Garcetti coast to victory, then running if Sen. Dianne Feinstein steps down and the mayor wins an open Senate seat in 2018 or gets a cabinet post in a Clinton 2.0 administration.
The net result is that Angelenos will likely have little that compels them to the polls. If only 21% of those eligible came out in the 2013 primary when their vote actually mattered, how many can be expected to show up in 2017, when Garcetti’s re-election may be preordained?
To consider how bad things could be, go back to 2009. That year, Villaraigosa ran against eight people, the most prominent being a never-had-a-chancer named Walter Moore. Moore got 26%, and a flailing AnVil won with an unimpressive 55.7%.
Turnout was an abhorrent 17.9%, with just 285,000 voters casting ballots. Will people feel even more disconnected to the political process in 2017 then they did in 2009? If so, then a turnout of below 15% becomes viable. Gulp.
More Slam Dunks
Other factors could conspire to make 2017 the perfect storm of voter apathy. While the 2009 mayor’s race was a snoozer, that year the race for city attorney was exciting, with a newbie named Carmen Trutanich running against the early favorite, Councilman Jack Weiss. While Trutanich won and eventually disappointed many, during the election he was a breath of fresh air, an outsider raging against the machine candidate. In that race, people felt their vote mattered.
Speaking of the city attorney, current officeholder Mike Feuer is also part of why more Angelenos on March 7, 2017, will probably watch reruns of “Law and Order” than vote. Feuer by most accounts has performed well since winning the job in 2013. With a solid rep and nearly $400,000 raised so far, he’s also not likely to draw a serious challenger. Heck, he may not draw any challengers.
There’s another citywide race, a re-election for Controller Ron Galperin, but this won’t do a thing for turnout, in part because most Angelenos still have no idea what a controller is.
The eight city council races should be equally uninspiring. All the slots are now held by men comfortably positioned for re-election, and each is likely to receive big money backing from traditional labor and business supporters. Unless one of these pols emerges at the center of a scandal involving cash, a donkey, a bathtub full of Jell-O or all three, they will likely face only minor challengers. And minor challengers, as we have learned in class today, don’t bring out the voters.
If all goes right, this will be the last terrible Los Angeles election. After 2017, the city electoral cycle will align with federal and state ballots in June and November of even-numbered years. Having more people vote in general should boost turnout and stop the city’s downward slide.
That, however, is five years away. Right now, the big question is, will we fall below 15%?
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015