Former mayoral candidate Austin Beutner speaks to reporters. "I… (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los…)
Austin Beutner's early departure from the Los Angeles mayor's race in one sense does not change much: The businessman had yet to make an impression with voters, so they will not likely miss him. And yet Beutner's absence means the race now lacks a certain type of candidate — the City Hall critic with genuine civic experience — and creates the opportunity for the remaining candidates to begin defining themselves more clearly.
So far, there's not much to work with in that regard. Radio talk show host Kevin James is the most obvious beneficiary of Beutner's withdrawal, as he had expected to compete with Beutner for the votes of those residents unhappy with the status quo in city government. But James lacks two things that Beutner has: a personal fortune sufficient to run a citywide campaign and actual experience in the workings of city government. That doesn't entirely rule out a successful run, but Beutner — who worked for the city for $1 a year, focusing on job creation at a time when the city badly needed it — had advantages that won't naturally transfer to James.
The rest of the field is notable mainly for the difficulty a voter would have differentiating between the candidates. Auditor Wendy Greuel, Councilman Eric Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry all hold elected city offices; all are bunched close together in early polling; and all are ideologically clustered in the moderate-to-liberal band of the Democratic Party. They do, however, have their points of emphasis. Garcetti is positioned as a champion of a Hollywood-style Los Angeles — he supports transit-oriented development linking more densely populated housing. Perry was a leading proponent of L.A. Live and the proposed downtown football stadium. Greuel can point to her audits as evidence that she is the campaign's fiscal watchdog.
Finally, there are the candidates who might be. No topic in Los Angeles politics has been more widely or fruitlessly discussed in recent months than the question of whether county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky might join the race — speculation he has encouraged by setting one deadline after another for himself to decide and letting each slip by. And with Beutner no longer occupying the lane for the moderate business outsider — a lane filled in previous elections by Richard Riordan (1993 and 1997) and Steve Soboroff (2001) — mall developer and former Police Commission President Rick Caruso may be enticed to join the race.
Beutner is the first casualty of a very long campaign; the primary isn't until March 2013. His absence will be swiftly absorbed by the current and potential candidates, who should devote themselves to articulating distinct visions for the city they are competing to lead.