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Portrait emerges of Wendy Greuel campaign's downfall

Interviews with aides and analysts indicate the city controller lost control of her message and underestimated the power of attacks by Councilwoman Jan Perry and Republican Kevin James.

May 26, 2013|By Seema Mehta and James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Wendy Greuel believed that as controller she had a perfect platform from which to run for mayor. But her team was caught off guard by the intensity of scrutiny of her statements.
Wendy Greuel believed that as controller she had a perfect platform from… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Wendy Greuel entered the race for mayor of Los Angeles with the formidable advantages of a front-runner.

She had amassed a huge political war chest, and independent campaigns were willing to spend millions more. She won the backing of the some of L.A.'s most powerful labor unions, but also of the Chamber of Commerce. Big names from opposite ends of the political spectrum — former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan and former Democratic President Clinton — would ultimately endorse her. She spoke inspirationally of becoming the city's first female mayor.

But six months after emerging as the leading candidate to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Greuel's campaign was handed a decisive defeat by her former City Council friend, Eric Garcetti. The portrait that emerges from interviews with campaign aides and analysts begins with a candidate who underestimated the strength of her opponents in the primary election and the importance of maintaining her brand as a trusted public servant. The slippage accelerated when Greuel's efforts to promote past accomplishments and future goals drew new rounds of scrutiny and criticism. And attempts to take down her opponents fell short, according to the interviews with campaign operatives and outside experts.

MAP: How L.A. voted

The city controller and former City Council member who wanted to be ahead of the pack and run a positive runoff campaign highlighting her historic bid to become the city's first female mayor found herself trailing and fighting a rear-guard action as voters went to the polls in March. After she finished 4 points behind Garcetti, key staffers departed, the financial advantages of employee-union backing became liabilities and her carefully cultivated reputation as a straight-shooting watchdog of the public purse suffered.

Greuel did not respond to a request for comment. But in recent days, reviewing the race with her closest advisors, she took solace in the fact that she fought hard for a job she had long coveted. Greuel repeated a quotation she had etched on her mother's gravestone: "Unless a person sets out to do more than he can possibly ever do, he will never do all that he can."

As she ramped up her campaign last year, Greuel believed that, as controller, she had built the perfect platform to run for mayor in a city that seemed perpetually in financial crisis, aides said. She would hammer at the $160 million in "waste, fraud and abuse" that the controller's office calculated she had uncovered during more than 80 audits. She suggested she could use such savings to help balance the budget.

FULL RESULTS: L.A. election 2013

But Greuel's team failed to delve deeply into the numbers buttressing the central theme of her campaign. Aides were caught off guard by the intensity of reporters' challenges. The media wanted to know how much the candidate could recover for the city treasury, and her answers were vague.

Changing focus, Greuel rolled out an ambitious and costly plan to add 2,000 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department. Polls show strong voter support for public safety improvements, but prominent political and civic leaders attacked the idea, noting the city already had slashed services, including 911 medical response teams, to reach a 10,000-officer force.

Greuel then backed away from the proposal, stressing that adding 2,000 more cops was an "aspiration." But the damage from questionable audit savings and criticism of her proposed police buildup had been done, said a source inside the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing internal matters. "It just exploded the trust that Wendy had built with the voters."

GRAPHIC: Contributions by special interest

Greuel and Garcetti appeared to be gliding toward a two-candidate runoff election from the start. But John Shallman, Greuel's chief strategist, acknowledged last week that campaign officials underestimated the punishment their candidate was in for during the primary.

"We didn't perceive Jan Perry or Kevin James as serious candidates in any way, shape or form," Shallman said, referring to the strength of the veteran African American councilwoman and Republican former radio host. "That was a mistake."

James, an attorney, was under-financed but particularly effective at withering sound bytes that attracted media coverage. He spoke with authority to conservative San Fernando Valley voters, who Greuel — a self-described "Valley girl" — long assumed would be a crucial pool of support. "Suddenly he became real," Shallman said. "The more real he became, the more of a challenge it became for us to hold on to and compete for our base."

James took the lead in warning voters of Greuel's connections to city unions, particularly the one representing many Department of Water and Power workers, who spent nearly $1.7 million on an independent campaign to get her elected. The message appeared to stick, according to USC Price/LA Times polling.

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