The runoff campaign for L.A. mayor began Wednesday, after Wendy Greuel's… (Los Angeles Times )
The Los Angeles mayoral runoff opened Wednesday with Democrats Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel fighting over who can best craft an image of fiscal restraint in a cash-strapped city whose voters refuse to raise taxes to maintain public services.
Garcetti, a city councilman who finished first in Tuesday's primary with 33% of the vote, sought to use Greuel's broad support among organized labor to portray her as bowing to its demands for scarce public money. Pummeled in attack ads by Greuel's labor backers, Garcetti vowed to stand up to union interests as they seek raises for city workers, particularly those at the Department of Water and Power.
"We're not out of the woods yet," he said of the city's chronic budget troubles. "And there's going to be a real choice in this mayor's race between somebody who's going to be beholden to those interests and somebody who can collaborate, step up and make the tough decisions to keep moving forward."
Greuel — who finished second with 29%, despite more than $2 million spent by union allies on her behalf — sought to capitalize on the enormous political clout of organized labor while avoiding the impression that she would cater to its wishes. On Wednesday, Greuel, the city controller, was unabashed about embracing her labor supporters.
She surrounded herself with trash collectors, machinists and other city workers as she accepted the endorsement of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 10,000 city employees.
"I am so grateful to the workers who every single day provide the services to our residents," said Greuel, who hopes the Los Angeles County Labor Federation will soon throw its campaign machinery behind her. "Let's not demonize them. Let's not divide our city."
Earlier, in a Sun Valley appearance, she said she would examine the city's worker benefits but laid out no specifics — stating that any changes should be "part of the collective bargaining process."
Underlying the unlikely feud between two staunchly pro-labor Democrats was whether voters see the city's most powerful political force as protecting workers or as worsening the city's fiscal straits.
A reminder of voters' restive mood came Tuesday in their decision to turn aside Measure A, which would have raised sales taxes to generate hundreds of millions for city coffers.
As Garcetti and Greuel jousted over labor, another big question for the runoff was who could pick up support from the big voter groups that had preferred neither one of them in the primary: Republicans and African Americans.
In the primary, Republicans were the cornerstone of support for lawyer Kevin James, who performed strongest in such conservative areas as Porter Ranch, Chatsworth and West Hills.
African Americans strongly favored City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who won much of South Los Angeles. Between them, James and Perry evenly split a third of the vote, and their supporters are up for grabs in the runoff.
Preliminary election results show that Garcetti and Greuel each start the runoff campaign with a base, though neither is particularly strong.
Garcetti's district in the central city — from Hollywood to Echo Park and Atwater Village — proved most reliable for the longtime councilman. He also outperformed Greuel on the Westside.
But Garcetti, who has stressed his Mexican and Jewish ancestry, won less than the majority he had expected in some of the city's most Latino areas, such as Boyle Heights and Wilmington.
Many of the city's most prominent Latinos, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, are supporting Greuel.
Greuel's stronghold was the San Fernando Valley, with other pockets of support in San Pedro and the areas surrounding Los Angeles International Airport. But James' strength in the north and west Valley limited Greuel's reach in those areas.
Garcetti, who grew up in Encino, drew substantial support in the Valley too, particularly in neighborhoods along Ventura Boulevard, from Woodland Hills to Studio City.
Greuel's strategists have long assumed that Republican supporters of James would naturally switch to her in the runoff. Adopting a standard Republican message, she has described herself as a "tough fiscal watchdog" who has rooted out $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse.
She has also stressed her support by business groups, as she did Wednesday with a stop at an architectural design firm in Sun Valley.
"When I hear businesses are frustrated, I'm going to pick up the phone and tell them, how can I help you solve your problem?" she said.
But Greuel's alliance with labor complicates her positioning, as does her promise to hire a few thousand police officers, firefighters and paramedics once the city's budget is stabilized — a goal that became more elusive Tuesday when voters rejected the half-cent increase in the sales tax.
In 2007, both Greuel, then a City Council member, and Garcetti supported raises of up to 25% over five years for thousands of city workers despite a major budget shortfall that the city faced as the economy was turning downward.
Garcetti subsequently irked labor leaders by supporting layoffs and the furloughs of city workers.
On Wednesday, he sought to win credit from voters for making "difficult decisions in these tough times."
"The pension reform that we've led," he said, "led to hundreds of millions of dollars of real savings, protected those very same jobs to make sure that we can provide city services to our residents."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.