For the first time in three decades, 2nd District voters will elect a representative Tuesday to the Los Angeles City Council from a ballot that does not include Joel Wachs.
The former dean of the council resigned in October to head an arts foundation in New York, forcing a special election and creating the first wide-open race since he was first elected in 1971.
Battling for the seat are Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City), DreamWorks SKG executive Wendy Greuel and Van Nuys businessman James Cordaro. The race has been contentious and costly, with campaigns by unions and billboard companies favoring Cardenas.
Greuel has raised more than $440,000 in contributions and matching funds. Cardenas has raised $354,000 and Cordaro about $18,000.
Cardenas, 38, has served five years in the state Assembly, where he is chairman of the Budget Committee, but is being forced out by term limits.
Greuel, 40, served as an intern to Wachs, who has endorsed her. She worked for a decade as an aide to then-Mayor Tom Bradley before a four-year stint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Cordaro, 45, owns All Phase Electrical Systems, an electrical contracting company in Van Nuys, and has been active in community groups.
The race has divided the City Council, with one faction headed by council President Alex Padilla working hard to elect Cardenas, for whom Padilla once served as a field deputy. A larger faction that includes the council's four female members is backing Greuel.
Voters accustomed to having Wachs dominate elections say there is a new level of excitement as strong contenders work hard to win support.
"We have candidates going door to door this year. That's never happened before," said Sylvia Gross, founder of the Sunland-Tujunga Assn. of Residents.
The district includes Sunland, Tujunga, Shadow Hills and La Tuna Canyon, and parts of Sun Valley, North Hollywood, Arleta, Lake View Terrace, Panorama City, Mission Hills, North Hills, Valley Village, Studio City and Van Nuys.
The demographics of the district have changed dramatically. The Latino population has grown to 47.3% from 34% in the last decade, while the white population has decreased to 35.4% from 53%.
The candidates mostly agree on the need to improve basic city services, including police protection, but they have clashed over other issues, such as San Fernando Valley secession.
Cordaro supports secession, arguing that "people are crying for basic city services. And the only way things are going to change is if we turn into an independent city."
Cardenas opposes secession, saying that, despite his work to provide state funds for a feasibility study of Valley cityhood, he is not satisfied that a breakup would be best for residents.
"Where are we going to get our water? Where are we going to get our power? Those questions haven't been answered," he said.
Greuel said she does not yet have enough information to take a firm position but would prefer to see the city stay together.
"For me, it's about basic city services," she said. "People feel disconnected from City Hall. My priority is to connect people back to City Hall."
The three also have debated who has the experience and the independence to best represent the district.
Cardenas, who moved into the district from nearby Sylmar to run, cites 50 bills signed into law during his tenure in the Assembly, including an expansion of programs for at-risk youth and increased funding for school textbooks. He also played a role in securing $591 million for transit and street improvements in the Valley.
"I'm the only candidate with elected-office experience," he said.
Cardenas grew up in the Valley, the youngest of 11 children. His father was a migrant farm worker from Mexico. After earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from UC Santa Barbara, Cardenas worked as an engineer for Hewlett Packard before becoming a residential real estate agent.
He and his wife, Norma, have four children, ages 3 through 17.
Cardenas has been endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, as well as the unions representing LAPD officers and city firefighters.
Greuel said her work at City Hall puts her in the best position to get things done. She said she has gained valuable experience working for the federal government and in her current job handling government and community affairs for DreamWorks.
"With my 20 years of experience both in the public and private sector and in the district, I can truly make a difference in people's lives," she said. "I am an independent voice to make sure the Valley gets its fair share."
Greuel said that at HUD she helped obtain nearly $1 billion in disaster assistance after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. On Bradley's staff, she said, she played a role in creating L.A.'s BEST after-school program.
She grew up in the Valley and earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UCLA. Greuel, who bought her condo in the district in 1988, is single.