Wendy Greuel at a Los Angeles mayoral debate on Feb. 18. (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)
Outside campaign committees affiliated with two powerful city employee unions have spent more than $2.2 million on their bid to make Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel the city's next mayor, according to Ethics Commission records posted Saturday.
Working Californians, which is heavily backed by the Department of Water and Power union, reported spending an additional $770,000 on Greuel, much of it for campaign commercials. That brings the group's total to $1.65 million — money that has also gone toward billboards, pollsters and campaign consultants working on Greuel's behalf.
Two committees handled by the Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, also have spent $578,562 on TV and radio ads backing Greuel's bid.
The next mayor, and the leadership of the City Council, will be charged with negotiating new contracts with the DWP and police unions. Some officers have been frustrated by a policy that requires them to take time off instead of receiving much of their overtime. The top official at the DWP's employee union has said he expects to see raises in the new contract.
Councilman Eric Garcetti said labor's intense backing of Greuel raises a legitimate question of whether "elections can be bought."
"I don't think that comes without strings attached," the candidate said Saturday during a mayoral forum in the San Fernando Valley.
Councilwoman Jan Perry, also running for mayor, said voters should be "scared" of the Working Californians group's presence in the race. "It's like buying the position," she said after speaking at a separate event in Northridge.
Greuel repeatedly countered during the Valley forum that her record shows she has no problem saying "no" to allies.
"I have angered a lot of people as city controller, but not the taxpayers," Greuel said. "I've stood up and said the DWP doesn't do a good job on green energy and needs to do better."
Greuel and Garcetti have each raised more than $4 million under the system that limits contributions to $1,300 per donor. But unions and other special interests can spend unlimited sums if they do not coordinate their efforts with the candidate.
The unlimited outside spending for Greuel by Working Californians and the LAPD union now is higher than the combined donations collected by three other mayoral candidates: Perry, former prosecutor Kevin James and former tech executive Emanuel Pleitez.
James also is benefiting from unlimited outside spending by Better Way LA, an independent committee that has received $600,000 from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, a prominent Republican donor nationally. The group has spent nearly $488,000 for television ads and other expenses promoting James, according to Ethics Commission records.
But Friday the committee reported dismal fundraising numbers, collecting only $9,700 during the last reporting period and going into the final days before the March 5 primary with just $64,000 cash on hand. Political strategists say it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to air a meaningful number of television ads in the Los Angeles market for a week.
James said Saturday he would be "thrilled" if Simmons would donate more to Better Way LA in the closing days of the race.
Nibbling on bacon at the Original Pantry Cafe in downtown Los Angeles, he said the independent campaign group already has produced a television ad. "If Harold Simmons sees just how close we are to making this runoff [and donates], it can be, I'm sure, quickly put on television and radio, and I'd be thrilled to see that."
James, the only Republican among the top five contenders, made the remarks after greeting voters with former Mayor Richard Riordan, who has endorsed him.
Many of the diners at the landmark eatery weren't from Los Angeles. James met visitors from as far away as Korea and Britain, and many from communities outside of Los Angeles.
"I've seen your commercials," Susan Friedman told James, who happily replied, "OK, good!"
"But I live in Orange County, so, sorry," the Huntington Beach resident added.
The candidates spent the day sprinting around the city, trying to woo undecided voters in the race's closing days. They met up at the Valley College debate, where the moderator posed a big picture question: Which movie would the candidates pick for an Oscar at Sunday's awards?
James and Emanuel Pleitez punted, saying they had been too busy campaigning to see the nominated films. Perry chose "Zero Dark Thirty," about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, saying it embodied the triumph of good over evil.
Greuel said she was rooting for "Lincoln," the biography made by her old DreamWorks boss, Steven Spielberg, who is one of the financial backers of Working Californians.
Garcetti named "Argo," which tells the story of the daring 1980 Canadian rescue of American diplomats in Iran.
"Because it's the only one that filmed here," he said.
Times staff writers Catherine Saillant and Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.