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Mike Feuer, incumbent slayer

May 22, 2013|By Robert Greene
  • City attorney candidate Mike Feuer at his election night party.
City attorney candidate Mike Feuer at his election night party. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

It’s the end of the run for Antonio Villaraigosa. Not as mayor — he serves through June 30 — but as the only candidate in Los Angeles’ term-limit era ever to have ousted an incumbent running for re-election.

The departing mayor must now share his incumbent-slayer credentials with Mike Feuer, who on Tuesday unseated one-term City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

Term limits took hold in Los Angeles in 1993, when voters adopted a measure to restrict every city elected official to two four-year terms.

From then until now, anyone and everyone who ran for and won a first term for any city office also was elected to a second term — unless they were challenged by Villaraigosa. He defeated Councilman Nick Pacheco in 2003. Just two years later he bumped James K. Hahn from the mayor’s office. He’s now coming to the close of his second term.

Villaraigosa’s singular achievement fueled a key argument against term limits: Instead of shortening the tenure of officeholders whose performance falls below expectations, term limits lengthen them — because it’s hard to overcome the name recognition and fundraising power of an incumbent. Why go through the effort and risk of challenging an entrenched incumbent if you can just wait a few years and run instead for an open seat? So most incumbents cruised to easy second-term reelections without serious challenges and, in many cases, no challenges at all.

And things didn’t change much even after 2006, when voters rejiggered term limits to add a third term for City Council members (but not for the mayor, the city attorney or the controller).

Now every council member who ever ran for a third term in the term limits era won it just as easily as the second term. So the three-term, 12-year ceiling for council members became a floor. Same with the remaining two-term, eight-year tenure for the three citywide elected offices. All an officeholder had to do was to avoid being challenged by Villaraigosa.

The line of thinking goes that it takes a special something — call it magic, chutzpah, impatience, whatever — to defeat an incumbent who will be term-limited out anyway in a few years. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Villaraigosa had that rare something. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein once called it a “special shimmer.”

The formula includes a weakened incumbent. That was the play in 2003 when Villaraigosa challenged Pacheco in the 14th council district, which runs from Boyle Heights southwest to downtown. Pacheco’s popularity had suffered with news reports that he had pressed contractors for donations to a favored charity; then he was linked (during the first Hahn-Villaraigosa mayoral matchup) to a fake robo-call that clearly was meant to make voters believe it was county Supervisor Gloria Molina, calling to warn against voting for Villaraigosa.

That allowed Villaraigosa to claim some voter sympathy and the ethical high ground. It helped him bump Pacheco.

The same game plan worked against Hahn, who beat Villaraigosa for mayor in 2001. Four years later, voters remembered and still resented a controversial Hahn TV spot that featured a crack pipe and attempted to link Villaraigosa to a convicted drug trafficker. When Hahn was weakened politically — in part by a scandal at the Department of Water and Power — Villaraigosa pounced.

But only the man with the “special shimmer” had the goods to unseat even a weakened incumbent.

Until now.

Feuer lacks the Villaraigosa charisma. But he’s smart and accomplished, and Trutanich weakened himself politically by breaking a promise to serve two terms in office without seeking another post. That cost him voter sympathy and led voters to more closely scrutinize his performance. Without the D.A. run, he might easily have fended off a challenge; with it, he had the air of a loser and voters were ready to move on.

So perhaps a challenger in the term limits era doesn’t need shimmer, after all, to pick off an incumbent. The lesson for officeholders comes right out of Machiavelli: Never, ever, appear weak. Let’s hope that not appearing weak and doing a good job coincide more often than not.

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