In better times, Los Angeles city elections have served as vehicles for leaders' ambitious ideas — from expanding the city's solar energy capacity to building more than two dozen new libraries. This spring's contest testifies to an era in which city leaders cannot afford new promises and are having trouble keeping ones already made.
The times are most clearly reflected in a series of measures on the March 8 ballot aimed at putting the city's finances on firmer ground.
Among them: a bid to scale back pension benefits for future hires in the fire and police departments, an effort to carve out more money for hard-hit libraries, another to prevent raids on the reserve fund, and two measures that could rein in the power of the Department of Water and Power, whose leaders infuriated City Council members last year by threatening to withhold a $73.5-million transfer that the council was counting on to balance the budget.
"This election is going to be about a reform agenda, putting the city back on track and giving the residents of Los Angeles faith in their government," said City Council President Eric Garcetti, who is campaigning for the library measure, among others. "In communities around Los Angeles, people are very focused on defining what [the city's] core services are."
In a year in which there are no citywide races and incumbents are facing underfunded opponents in five of the seven council contests, the ballot campaigns also offer a hint of political intrigue. They test the persuasive powers of several potential contenders in the 2013 mayor's race, including Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry, City Controller Wendy Greuel and state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) — all of whom plan to make the case to voters for certain initiatives over the next six weeks.
"Everybody needs something to run on and identify themselves with, whether it's reforming the Department of Water and Power or saving the library's money," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "That's how you get known; you find something like that and you get it accomplished."
The March vote could also have political consequences for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will go head to head against the teachers union as he tries to maintain his majority on the Los Angeles Board of Education, where four of seven seats are up for election.
Villaraigosa, who has two years left in his second and last term, framed the contest in early December when he called leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles "one unwavering roadblock to reform."
"All the fireworks really are going to be there. People are really going to be paying attention to see the battle between the mayor and UTLA," said Kerman Maddox, a public affairs consultant who worked for former Mayor Tom Bradley and has been a consultant to Villaraigosa on education issues in the past.
By contrast, the only fireworks so far in the City Council races have been in the 14th District of Jose Huizar. Self-financed candidate Rudy Martinez has been able to remain competitive with Huizar's fundraising efforts while arguing that he could be a more effective advocate for the district, which includes portions of downtown and stretches through Boyle Heights and north to Eagle Rock.
The only race without an incumbent — the one involving the northwest San Fernando Valley 12th District seat now held by retiring Councilman Greig Smith — might have proved more dramatic, but Smith's top deputy, Mitchell Englander, has netted endorsements from nearly every council member while amassing almost $443,988 in his treasury. His closest opponent has raised $33,915.
The remaining five incumbents — Tony Cardenas, Tom LaBonge, Paul Krekorian, Bernard C. Parks and Herb Wesson Jr. — are outpacing their challengers in fundraising.
Parks faces a potential threat from the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which spent $8.5 million against him when he ran against Mark Ridley-Thomas for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2008. The federation endorsed a Parks opponent, Forescee Hogan-Rowles, earlier this week.
Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the federation, said it would decide by the end of this month whether to step in with independent expenditures.
Parks, who hired a campaign consultant last week, said he "can't be concerned about it."
"You could get out here and chase the bogeyman and take your mind off everything else you're doing, but we're just staying focused," he said.
For now, part of that focus is advocating for the library measure to nearly double the share of property tax revenue guaranteed to the department by the City Charter (from 0.0175% to 0.0300%).
Libraries "always lose" when competing with police, fire and other departments during the annual budgeting process, Parks said.