Voters and candidates trickled into Los Angeles polling places Tuesday morning, casting ballots in the city's most sweeping leadership turnover in more than a decade.
The election to replace termed-out Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and select a city attorney, city controller, and eight City Council members comes against a backdrop of uncertainty about the level of services the nation's second-largest city will be able to deliver in coming years.
If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in Tuesday's contests, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff in May. Los Angeles city polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, 33 cities also are holding local elections.
Most eyes are on the L.A. mayor's race and a proposed tax hike that would boost the city's sales tax rate to 9.5%, one of the highest in the state. Backers — including Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and City Council President Herb Wesson — say the measure will generate $1 billion over the next five years and help close the city's budget gap.
Sylvia Irwin usually skips primary elections. But this year, she voted. The reason? Measure A. "We don't need more taxes," she said.
Irwin, 72, voted on Bunker Hill with her husband, Larry, who also voted against the sales tax increase. He said the city's lawmakers have done a poor job with the money they have. "The city's finances are poorly managed," he said.
That's one reason Irwin voted for Emanuel Pleitez for mayor, despite his lack of experience in government. "Experience hasn't really paid off in politics," he said.
In the school board race, he voted for Annamarie Montanez because she didn't have the backing of outside spending. "I don't think we need to spend $2 million to get someone elected. It's all the more reason to vote against them."
In Studio City, a few early birds beat Controller Wendy Greuel to her polling place at Unitarian-Universalist Church, but the mayoral candidate was there just 30 mintues after the polls opened.
Accompanied by her husband, Dean Schramm, and the couple's 9-year-old son, Thomas, Greuel tried to cast her ballot in one of the voting stalls. But the machine malfunctioned and she moved to the next stall, with Thomas watching intently.
"Sorry, we brought a few people,'' she said to the poll workers as a scrum of cameras moved in to record her every move.
Outside the polling place, she admitted to both excitement and nerves. After a long campaign, voters will finally choose from among Gruel, the city controller; Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, both City Council members; former radio talk show host Kevin James; Pleitez, a former technology executive; and three little-known candidates, VJ Draiman, Addie Miller and Norton Sandler.
After a bruising final few days, Greuel had a simple message for Los Angeles residents.
"Please go out and vote,'' she said. "It's important to your everyday life ... and this is your civic duty and responsibility."
The outgoing mayor arrived at his Mid-Wilshire polling place just minutes after it opened. Villaraigosa declined to say who he voted for in the mayor's race, but refuted ads that portrayed Los Angeles as being on the brink of bankruptcy.
"Those are ads that people put on TV and promulgate because they want to distinguish between themselves and what they're going to do and the current administration," he said. "But the fact of the matter is there's a lot to celebrate in this town."
More than $19 million has been spent on television and radio ads, campaign mailers and consultants in the mayoral race. Expenditures by committees not controlled by the candidates already have topped $4.8 million in city races, shattering the $4.3-million record previously set in 2005 for the entire primary and runoff campaigns.
In addition to the City Hall contests, voters will choose three members of the Los Angeles Unified School District's board and three members of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.
Independent interests have spent nearly $5 million to influence the school board races, with $1 million contributed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a political action committee supporting candidates backed by Villaraigosa. The outcome could affect the direction of the district.
Turnout by the 1.8 million registered voters in the city is expected by some political observers to be below the 34% seen in 2005, when Villaraigosa won office to become Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in modern times. The city clerk has issued 663,065 vote-by-mail ballots — about a fifth had been returned by Monday.