Mayoral candidates Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti are seen greeting the… (Los Angeles Times )
With Los Angeles' mayoral primary less than 12 weeks away, the race is taking on a sharper focus after a weekend skirmish between City Controller Wendy Greuel and a rival who hopes to pull support from her political base among white voters in the San Fernando Valley.
Of the eight candidates vying in the March 5th primary, Greuel is one of the best known. Yet one of her least-known adversaries, Republican Kevin James, is posing a potential threat to her quest for a spot in the May 21st runoff.
Greuel made that clear when she tried to discredit James on Saturday night in the campaign's first televised debate. She described the KRLA radio talk show James once hosted as a "radical right-wing" program. By demonizing President Obama, she suggested, James cast doubt on his capacity to govern Los Angeles.
Greuel's attack set off the only significant clash in the hour-long debate. And it called attention to the challenges she faces in the Valley as she tries to position herself for what she hopes will be a runoff against her top rival, City Councilman Eric Garcetti.
"Strategically, it's revealing," said Bill Carrick, Garcetti's top campaign advisor. "They're hearing footsteps, and they're Kevin James' footsteps."
Greuel, who represented the Valley on the City Council for seven years, faces a right-flank challenge not just from James, but also from Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has cast herself as the candidate most friendly to business.
Greuel's watchdog position as controller offers her a platform to portray herself as rooting out City Hall waste, fraud and abuse — a popular stance among conservatives in the Valley. At the debate, broadcast live on KABC, Greuel told viewers that her efforts had identified $160 million in savings for the city.
But Greuel risks jeopardizing that image as she battles Garcetti for the support of organized labor. At a private forum held recently by the Service Employees International Union, which represents 10,000 city workers, Greuel took a swipe at Garcetti for backing the elimination of 4,000 city jobs "by any means necessary, including layoffs."
"You have to ask yourself this question: Who do you trust? Who's going to be true to their word?" Greuel said. "It is important that you have someone who is going to stand with you every step of the way."
Both the Garcetti and Perry campaigns have begun accusing Greuel of hypocrisy for kowtowing to labor in private.
"If you're with them on every issue, what do you tell these Valley Republicans who think you're some kind of fiscal hawk?" said Eric Hacopian, Perry's chief strategist. "You can't be both."
It's not yet clear whether Perry or James has the wherewithal to significantly erode Greuel's base among white voters in the Valley. Neither can afford as much TV or mail advertising as Greuel. Greuel, who has stressed that she would be the first woman elected mayor of Los Angeles, has raised $2.8 million — more than double what Perry has collected, and more than 10 times what James has raised.
Perry, who is African American, is trying to rebuild the coalition that backed James K. Hahn for mayor in 2001: black voters in South Los Angeles and conservatives in the Valley. But Hahn, whose father was a popular county supervisor for four decades, had one of the best known names in Los Angeles politics and a broader South L.A. base than Perry.
James, a former federal prosecutor who would be the city's first gay mayor, faces longer odds but could benefit from a wild card: Fred Davis, a prominent Republican ad consultant, has organized an independent committee to raise and spend money on his behalf. How much remains to be seen. But if James starts picking up support of fellow Republicans, especially on the Valley's northern and western fringe, it will probably come at Greuel's expense.
At Saturday's debate, Greuel asked James: "How can you possibly expect to be a credible or effective mayor, asking President Obama for help, when you spent years on … a radical right-wing radio show, talking and demonizing the president, calling him names, and even going on national television, comparing him to Neville Chamberlain?"
Greuel was alluding to a 2008 appearance by James on MSNBC's "Hardball," when he appeared to compare Obama's willingness to speak with foreign adversaries to the British prime minister's appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
"It wasn't a great day at the office for me on national television," James responded to Greuel. (He denied making any direct comparison of Obama and Chamberlain.)
John Shallman, Greuel's chief strategist, said the controller's point was simply to show that her Republican opponent would have trouble securing the federal aid that Los Angeles needs for public transit and airport security, among other things.
"Look," he said, "she had the guts to stand up and make him respond to some of the wild and reckless statements that he has made as a shock jock on the radio."
Shallman also played down the prospect of anyone cutting into Greuel's support in the Valley. Her growing roster of support by political leaders across a wide spectrum of Los Angeles, he said, shows that she has the largest base of anyone in the race.