City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, appears… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
At campaign stops across Los Angeles, mayoral hopeful Wendy Greuel is promising to do more than improve schools, transportation and the economy.
She's vowing to make history.
At a time when men hold 14 out of 15 seats on the City Council, Greuel is issuing a call to arms to female voters to help her break City Hall's ultimate glass ceiling. She says she's aspiring to become Los Angeles' first female mayor in part to be "a role model to every young girl out there who dreams they can reach for the stars."
With some internal polls showing most undecided voters in the March primary are women, Greuel and her strategists see an opening they are determined to exploit. But not without a fight from the other top contenders.
Councilwoman Jan Perry is making her own, less overt appeals to women. So is City Councilman Eric Garcetti, a self-proclaimed feminist who recently won the endorsement of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The competition to woo female voters was on display last week with Greuel and Garcetti making appeals in connection to the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision, which relaxed restrictions on abortion. In a fiery Huffington Post article, Greuel pledged to be a national leader on abortion rights, while Garcetti tweeted: "We must keep fighting for reproductive justice for all women."
All Democrats, the top three candidates in the race share the same views on women's issues. Each supports equal pay for equal work requirements, and each believes that women should have unrestricted access to birth control and abortion. Even Kevin James, the leading Republican in the race, is pro-choice.
"The candidates are so similar, they are scrambling for a base," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the Price School of Public Policy at USC.
Jeffe said Greuel is smart to emphasize the historic possibility of her election because it may differentiate her from the pack.
"Any effective campaign manager of a woman candidate should and must articulate to a female audience that it is important to have a woman running Los Angeles," she said. "Wendy has to pull as many [female voters] in as she possibly can."
Whether Greuel's aspirational appeal will work remains to be seen. Wide economic and geographic stratifications mean female voters in the San Fernando Valley may have different priorities than those in Koreatown or San Pedro.
But there are signs that Greuel's pitch is gaining traction. Her Women for Wendy group has more than 700 members who host house parties and fundraisers. She has lined up endorsements from influential female politicians, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who appeared alongside Greuel on Saturday at the opening of her new campaign office on the Westside.
At ground level, USC student Kaya Masler said she was excited by the chance to help elect the city's first female mayor. But that's only partly why she volunteered to help Greuel's campaign.
"She is a woman, and that would be huge, but it really is the kind of woman she is that inspires me," said Masler, 21.
She met Greuel at a campus event designed to encourage young women to run for office. She said she was energized by Greuel's honesty about the strain of long workdays and about her frustration with people who "will pick apart her haircut rather than the content of her speech."
Although city leaders rarely, if ever, make decisions on such issues as abortion, "women's issues and women being disenfranchised affect every part of the city," Masler said.
Patricia Bellasalma, the head of California NOW, said a mayor should weigh every decision in terms of how it would affect women and girls. She said men have shown they are capable of making that assessment.
For example, Garcetti, a NOW member, helped preserve the city's domestic violence response teams, she said.
But Stephanie Myers, national co-chair for the advocacy group Black Women for Positive Change, argues that there is a unique aspect to a woman's perspective. "I think that women bring a certain compassion and understanding to elected office," said Myers, who is supporting Perry.
In contrast to Greuel, Perry is not stressing the historic possibility of electing a woman because "identity politics is not what people are looking for in a mayoral election," said Eric Hacopian, her campaign consultant.
Ultimately, Perry said, voters are not seeking officials who look like them but leaders who can demonstrate "that you have some capacity to deliver what it is that they need."
Voters' attitudes toward the importance of electing the first woman mayor also are mixed.
At a Neighborhood Council meeting in the Valley, North Hills resident Anita Goldbaum said a mayor's gender doesn't matter because most decisions affecting women aren't made at City Hall. "I don't know if the city is where women's politics take place," said Goldbaum, 72.
Her friend Mary Armenteros said this election is about issues and candidates' qualifications, not gender.
But Yvette Brown, who was picking up lunch last week at a Ladera Heights McDonald's, said the gender of the candidates "matters a lot."
Brown is undecided, but said she probably will vote for Greuel or Perry partly because they would bring a mother's perspective to education, the issue she cares about most.
Brown compared the chance to elect the city's first female mayor to the excitement she felt voting for Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor in the city's modern history.
"Everything that's a 'first,' I've been for," she said.