At left, City Controller Wendy Greuel with Magic Johnson after getting… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
Since winning spots in the mayoral runoff, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel have been scurrying around Los Angeles rolling out new endorsements as they seek to gain an edge in what is expected to be a tight, low-turnout election.
In statewide and national races, many endorsements are seen as little more than window dressing. But political observers say that in this mayoral contest, some nods could play an outsized role, both in differentiating two Democrats who are similar in many ways and in determining who goes to the polls in an election that few voters appear to care about.
"This is an unusual election because I think the endorsers seem to be acting as a surrogate for the candidates. I don't know that I've seen that to this degree before," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "I think that's because the candidates have not quite defined themselves clearly.… The surrogates are probably better known and better defined than the candidates."
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That may also be because the candidates, since advancing in the March 5 primary, have spent little time publicly engaging each other and their appearances have largely been news conferences to announce new supporters. The decision to focus on endorsements is logical, both to build momentum in a close race and because endorsers who had been waiting for the best time to announce their choices have decided it is now.
Greuel has received the bulk of the blue-chip endorsements, including from former President Clinton, former Mayor Richard Riordan, basketball legend Magic Johnson, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and major unions. Garcetti has also received notable backing, including from two failed mayoral candidates who received a total of 20% of the primary vote: Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez. He has also received the support of several of his City Council colleagues as well as businessman Steve Soboroff.
Both candidates also have celebrity endorsers, though Garcetti has racked up more Hollywood names, including Will Ferrell, Salma Hayek, Kal Penn and Jimmy Kimmel. Political experts agree that although stars can provide a headline, they don't necessarily pay off at the ballot box.
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Garcetti agreed that few endorsements are pivotal.
"Endorsements make headlines, but they rarely move voters.... People haven't voted for some of those endorsements ever, or over a decade," Garcetti said. But "candidates are different, and people who bring supporters and an operation with them are different."
The former mayoral candidates and the sitting council members who support Garcetti know their districts "block by block," a knowledge that will be invaluable to campaign strategists, he said.
Greuel said her endorsements are a key signal for voters because they come from people who know firsthand her leadership skills.
"These are leaders who know my work and my record," she said. "When you have Bill Clinton, who talks about my leadership spearheading the response to the Northridge earthquake, or Magic Johnson, who knows my work in helping South Los Angeles, or Dick Riordan focusing on being business-friendly, those voices explain to people who I am and what kind of leader I'm going to be as the next mayor."
In recent days, the battle has been to win over black leaders as the candidates court the African American community, which is expected to be a pivotal voting bloc. Many black voters supported Perry, so her nod is important for Garcetti, but Greuel's event with Johnson featured a broad cross section of religious, civil rights and elected leaders.
Some argue that labor is the most potent of any endorsement because it can bring with it not only money but foot soldiers to knock on doors, operate phone banks and otherwise prod people to the polls — a necessity after a primary turnout in which only one in five registered voters cast ballots. Though Garcetti has received some labor support, Greuel has received far more, including from heavyweights such as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Service Employees International Union Local 721.
"If you have to take an endorsement of an individual, no matter who that individual is, it could be Pope Emeritus Benedict, versus that organization that actually brings some organizational heft to your effort … clearly you like the latter more," said Garry South, a Democratic operative who is uncommitted in the contest. "Labor endorsements are far more important to Wendy Greuel than President Clinton's endorsement … because they put boots on the ground."
But Greuel's labor backing has been a double-edged sword, because her rivals have painted her as beholden to public-employee unions at a time when Los Angeles is facing financial liabilities in part because of its contracts with city workers.
FULL COVERAGE: L.A. mayor's race