L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is running for mayor, attends church… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
One big advantage for a Los Angeles city controller aspiring to higher office is the ability to make news with a steady flow of audits exposing wasteful spending at City Hall.
So while stuck in Hollywood Freeway traffic on a recent morning, Wendy Greuel, controller and candidate for mayor, picked up her phone for a radio interview about one of those reports, accusing the city of squandering $325,000 on improper mileage reimbursements.
"That was really just the tip of the iceberg," she told listeners, recycling a line she's used to publicize previous audits finding lavish travel spending at the Housing Authority and credit card abuses at the Coliseum.
In a city beset by chronic budget shortfalls, Greuel is campaigning in the March 5 election primary as a fiscal conservative. She's uniquely qualified, she argues, not just because of her record as a city official, but as a result of her work at DreamWorks and her family's ownership of a building supply business in North Hollywood.
"I have inside knowledge and an outside perspective," she said in an interview.
But Greuel's record, her opponents contend, doesn't match the image she's crafting. They question what she's accomplished with her audits and portray her Hollywood experience — in government relations — as emblematic of a career as a political insider.
"This whole notion that she's some kind of outsider who has an ounce of political courage, it's frankly a bunch of hooey," said Eric Hacopian, chief strategist for mayoral candidate and City Councilwoman Jan Perry. Greuel's audits, he said, amount to "constant headline grabbing" and "a whole bunch of sound and fury that signifies nothing."
With three rivals jostling to cut into her presumed and potentially decisive base of support in the San Fernando Valley, Greuel's prospects for succeeding Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa depend largely on how effectively she can repel that line of attack.
"It's a tightrope act," said Steven P. Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego, noting that Greuel, in particular, needs to secure support from groups whose priorities may diverge.
"She doesn't want to turn labor off," he said. Indeed, she has courted unions by promising to fight harder than her opponents to protect the city workforce.
At the same time, Erie said, Greuel has to "appeal to a more fiscally moderate-to-conservative base out in the Valley."
A former Valley-area City Council member who was elected controller in 2009, Greuel takes credit for identifying $160 million in potential city savings through her audits. But stopping that waste, she says, is up to the council and the mayor under the City Charter.
"I've been the one that has been looking at fiscal responsibility," she said.
Greuel's effort to cast herself as a champion of fiscal restraint is likely to face other tests, among them her support — during seven years on the council — for a rapid rise in spending that worsened the city's budget crisis.
Like her top competitors in the race, Perry and Councilman Eric Garcetti, Greuel now expresses regret for backing generous raises for 22,000 city workers in 2007 — despite a $243-million budget shortfall. The deficit quickly swelled when the economy spiraled downward.
She also has joined calls to abolish the city's business tax, which brings in $439 million a year. The revenue loss would exacerbate budget shortfalls projected to range from $216 million to $327 million in each of the next four years, analysts have warned.
Greuel and Garcetti say getting rid of the tax would spur economic growth. Perry and another candidate, entertainment lawyer Kevin James, say the city can't afford to abolish the tax.
Greuel, who grew up in Granada Hills, said her family's business, Frontier Building Supply, taught her to appreciate the burden of city taxes. "I did everything from cleaning the bathrooms to sweeping the warehouse to doing the accounting to answering the phone to driving the forklift and driving a truck," she said. Now, she co-owns the company with her brother, who runs it.
Greuel, 51, a UCLA graduate, started her career as an aide to Mayor Tom Bradley, working on such issues as homelessness, child care and services for the elderly. A Republican until 1992, when she registered as a Democrat, Greuel was part of a group of Bradley aides who moved to Washington to take jobs in the Clinton administration.
She recalled leafing with colleagues through the "plum book" directory of federal political appointments — named for its "plum" government jobs — as the end of Bradley's tenure approached. Mark Fabiani, a top Bradley aide who became special counsel to President Clinton, passed Greuel's resume to Andrew Cuomo, then Clinton's assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development.