Los Angeles mayoral candidate Austin Beutner mingles with the audience… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Austin Beutner took aim at "the barnyard called City Hall" on Thursday in a speech intended to outline his economic vision for the city — and distance himself from the lawmakers now governing it.
Beutner, a former investment banker who served as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "jobs czar" for 15 months, said city leaders, and particularly the City Council, have dragged their feet on key infrastructure projects, including a new rail cargo-handling facility near the Port of Los Angeles and road improvements. He criticized a much-touted 35-year plan to make the city more bicycle-friendly for being too sluggish.
He also dismissed California's proposed high-speed rail project as "a boondoggle" and said billions in taxpayer dollars pledged to the project would be better spent on local transportation systems. With the cost of the train project soaring to nearly $100 billion, Beutner said, "it's time to put a bullet in high-speed rail."
His comments put him squarely at odds with Villaraigosa and other City Hall leaders who support the massive rail project, which would connect downtown Los Angeles to San Francisco. Two of Beutner's opponents in the 2013 mayoral race — City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — support the rail project. Another, City Controller Wendy Greuel, could not be reached for comment.
Beutner's stance on the bullet train could alienate him from boosters in the business and organized labor community. But the Pacific Palisades resident may be able to use his personal wealth to help fund his 2013 election drive. He said he plans to "invest" in his campaign once he's established support from others.
Other Beutner proposals laid out Thursday in a Town Hall Los Angeles speech in Little Tokyo were designed to cast him as a business-friendly candidate in the mold of former Mayor Richard Riordan, a Beutner enthusiast who was in the audience. Beutner called for more investment in Los Angeles' biotech and technology industries, a more streamlined tax and regulation process for small businesses and the elimination of the city's business tax.
That tax generates more than $400 million annually. Beutner declined to detail how he would offset any revenue loss, saying he would propose a plan to balance the city budget at a later date.
Perry said some of Beutner's ideas were too "esoteric" and not grounded in the realities of the city's overstretched budget.
"When you come from a very Wall Street perspective, you're very much engaged in the theoretical," she said. "He sat in City Hall for a year. I don't know what he learned, but clearly he doesn't have a real firm grasp on what it takes to administer and run a city."
Beutner refrained from direct criticism of Villaraigosa but attacked council members, who earn $178,000, as ineffective and overpaid.
Garcetti, who stepped down as the council's president in December, said he was proud of his work steering the city "through some of the toughest economic times we've ever had."
Many of his ideas for improving the local economy — including the elimination of the business tax and investment in new industries — are similar to Beutner's. But Garcetti stressed that he has a proven track record, pointing to economic development projects in areas of his district such as Hollywood and Silver Lake.
Without the platform of a political office, Beutner is seeking to raise his profile and name recognition in a potential field of better-known contenders. One could be longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is weighing a run for mayor.
Beutner, 51, has a quiet, unassuming countenance. He bristled slightly Thursday at a question about his charisma quotient. "Are we casting a movie?" he said. "Or are we trying to find someone who can actually lead Los Angeles?"