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Beutner talks softly, carries a big business plan

Mayoral candidate says he is ready to tackle the mess at City Hall to teach his children the value of hard work.

March 11, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Austin Beutner says hes running for mayor to teach his children "the value of working hard, trying to make a difference for others."
Austin Beutner says hes running for mayor to teach his children "the… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

It strikes me that anyone who'd want to be the next mayor of Los Angeles ought to have his head examined, so Dr. Lopez has decided to begin seeing patients.

Think about it. Services have withered, streets look like they've been chewed up by IEDs, budget shortfalls could become catastrophic, and the City Council always has an assortment of second-stringers who can't be counted on to lead or get out of the way.

What kind of twisted person would want to wake up to that every day?

Austin Beutner, for one. He says he's doing it for the sake of his four kids — 15, 12, 10 and 8 — to teach them "the value of working hard, trying to make a difference for others."

Like New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Beutner is a very rich man, having made his fortune in investment banking. Like Bloomberg, and former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, he seems to believe that his success in business means he can be a success in politics.

Now you might think that's a little like saying Kobe Bryant could probably play third base for the Dodgers (and I might agree). But maybe that kind of arrogance — did I say arrogance? I meant confidence — would serve Beutner well. After all, he did refer recently to "the barnyard called City Hall."

When he says things like that, Beutner is playing to every schmo with an uprooted sidewalk who got disconnected when he called the city's 311 help line. And he's throwing down what he thinks is his best card, which is to pin the blame on the insiders he's running against.

That means council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, and city controller and former council member Wendy Greuel. In a recent blog post, Beutner blamed those three for what he called life-threatening cuts to the city Fire Department, and the department was forced to admit last week that response times were worse than the public had been led to believe. Beutner, by the way, was rescued by the Fire Department a few years ago after a serious bike accident.

When we met Thursday at the Mercado La Paloma near USC, Beutner downed a couple of quick tacos before telling me about his surprise on a recent fire call ride-along.

The firefighter "pulled out a paper map," Beutner said, as if a map were as archaic as a firetruck pulled by horses. When the Fire Department's response time can mean the difference between life and death, why aren't firetrucks equipped with GPS systems?

Beutner — who had a job at City Hall for 15 months as Antonio Villaraigosa's jobs czar and fix-it man — says he concluded from his experience that city departments function in detached isolation from one another and the people they're supposed to serve. Need city approval to build a deck at your house or open a restaurant? Get ready for a kind of torture that comes in just under water boarding.

His opponents, of course, are going to ask why Beutner, who was briefly in charge of 13 city departments, didn't do more to straighten things out when he had the chance. And he's going to argue that with full authority, he'll do just that.

He's firmly on the side of business folks who say setting up shop in L.A. is a perfectly horrible nightmare. And Beutner did help lure several companies to town by streamlining regulations and offering a holiday from gross receipts taxes.

But is the solution to the city's problems really to give corporate players, who already have bought a lot of clout at City Hall with campaign donations, even more power?

Last year, one of the world's largest architectural firms — Gensler — wanted to move its regional headquarters from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. As I wrote at the time, a private real estate executive emailed someone in Perry's office asking for "about $1 million or more for tenant improvements" in a Flower Street building that already housed two of the city's ritziest restaurants. The result was a $1-million federal grant to pay for Gensler's move, the money coming from a fund intended for economic stimulus in low-income communities.

Beutner was behind that deal.

Did Gensler, with hundreds of millions in revenues, need a public handout? And is anything gained regionally when a few hundred jobs move just 15 miles on the Santa Monica Freeway?

"They have created many more jobs than initial expectations," Beutner says. "Every job at Gensler means others working in the community in real estate, construction, restaurants, etc.... We need to attract 100 more Genslers to Los Angeles."

Sure, but I hope we don't end up paying a lot more in the way of moving expenses to steal jobs from neighboring cities.

When you ask Beutner how he'll balance the budget if the state puts less money in the cup and we lose $400 million a year on the business tax holiday, his answer — greater efficiency and innovation and more businesses being reeled in to stimulate the economy — is short on details and long on speculation.

And when we met, I kept having to lean in closer to hear what he was saying.

Look, if we've learned anything the last seven years, it's that a commanding presence and constant mugging don't necessarily make for a great mayor. On the other hand, Riordan recently fell asleep at Beutner's Town Hall speech on job development, and this is the man Riordan has endorsed.

This is a dynamic city and it needs a dynamic leader. Someone who can knock heads at City Hall, take on the union bosses over pensions and sound off in public from time to time, whether a lazy Legislature needs a scold or a Good Samaritan needs a cheer.

Is Beutner up to it?

We'll see. His checkbook will help him raise his voice, for sure. So you haven't heard the last of the barnyard called City Hall.

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