Los Angeles Mayor: Wendy Greuel’s campaign of confusion and chaos

by Dante Atkins on March 25, 2013

Note: This opinion piece reflects solely the viewpoint of the author.

The conclusion of the primary election in Los Angeles has set off a new scramble for endorsements by those left standing, and nowhere is that more true than the runoff for Los Angeles Mayor, which will take place on May 21. This past Tuesday, Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel received the unanimous endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor for her campaign to replace the termed-out Antonio Villaraigosa. The vote was a foregone conclusion after the Executive Committee voted to recommend the endorsement to the membership with roughly 70% of that vote.

Those who don’t follow every detail of the race, or are perhaps less familiar with Los Angeles politics, might wonder why Greuel would be able to receive such a forceful showing, given the generally prevailing notion that Greuel would perhaps be more moderate, while her opponent, former City Council President and DNC Executive Commmittee member Eric Garcetti, would receive the lion’s share of progressive endorsements in the race. And the simple answer has to do with pensions.

It’s a familiar story to many: when the economy imploded, many local governments got hit with massive budget shortfalls, and Los Angeles was no exception. In order to preserve as many city services as possible, the City Council sought to save money by scaling back future labor costs for city workers. The long and arduous history of these negotiations is beyond the purview of this piece; suffice it to say, however, that the City Council, led by Council President Eric Garcetti, voted unanimously to scale back the retirement age for future city employees hired after July 1 of this year, thus saving about $4 billion over the next few decades.

Labor was not happy because they felt that any such restructuring needed to happen through the collective bargaining process; the Council, however, had been advised that because the change did not touch the contracts of current workers, that the Council had the authority to proceed without ratification. Even though the vote was unanimous–with ardent pro-labor Councilmembers like Paul Koretz and Richard Alarcon voting in favor–this move earned Eric Garcetti the enmity of union leadership.

When it came time for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to issue its endorsement in the May 21 runoff election, Wendy Greuel was more than happy to take advantage. See, she had the advantage of being City Controller when this all went down, so unlike Eric Garcetti, she didn’t have to vote (though given the fact, as mentioned above, that even Koretz and Alarcon sided with Garcetti, it’s naive to think that the more moderate Greuel would have opposed the vote). While campaigning for the endorsement, Greuel absurdly compared Eric Garcetti to notoriously anti-worker Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (which earned her the ridicule of the Los Angeles Times), and promised that were she to become mayor, she would reopen talks on the pension reform the City Council passed and subject it to collective bargaining.

Greuel told labor exactly what they wanted to hear, and not surprisingly, she got the endorsement. And that’s where things get a little dicey. See, Greuel’s campaign depends on winning over more moderate valley voters, and the voters of Republican Kevin James, who finished third in the primary. And let’s be honest: attacking pension reform while having the DWP union Super PAC spend millions on your behalf in the primary campaign is probably not the way to get that done. The Chamber of Commerce, which had also endorsed Greuel, was none too pleased either, and they called Greuel to account for her positions. And thus started a fast and furious march to the right for Wendy Greuel.

First, she backed away from her commitment to reopen the pension reform to negotiations, telling the Los Angeles Times that she actually supports the changes that the City Council did, even though just a few days beforehand, she had compared the Council’s actions to those of Scott Walker. She also said that instead of renegotiating with labor on the pension reform already done, she just wants to talk with them about how to avoid a lawsuit about those same reforms (though how she expects to accomplish both objectives while conceding nothing is anyone’s guess). It didn’t end up mattering–the Chamber had to cancel a fundraiser it was throwing for her out of lack of interest. But that walkback was just the beginning.

Greuel’s campaign took it a step further: to “clear the air”–and presumably save face with the Chamber of Commerce and conservatives–they released a letter from former Speaker of the Assembly and former Mayoral Candidate Bob Hertzberg, which reads, in part:

Wendy is ready to roll up her sleeves and attack the real problem – our current pension obligations. She wants to explore raising the retirement age for current employees, and scaling employee contributions based on when workers enter the pension system.

Got that? It gets better. Shortly thereafter, the Greuel campaign announced that she had received the backing of conservative Republican former Mayor Richard Riordan, and that were she to win, Riordan would be her first hire in her new administration. Now, for those who are unaware, Mayor Riordan spearheaded a failed campaign to place a measure on the ballot that would have severely rolled back pensions for city workers, and even eliminated the defined benefit system in favor of a defined-contribution 401(k) style retirement system. And sure enough, Riordan told the Daily News–Los Angeles’ more conservative newspaper–that in Greuel’s administration, he will indeed do more of the same:

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said Wednesday he has endorsed City Controller Wendy Greuel in the mayor’s race and joined her campaign as an economic advisor on labor and business issues.

Retirement costs will be a focus in the campaign, Riordan said. He said he will try to bring business and labor groups together to work on pension issues.

“Pension and health care,” Riordan said, listing off his agenda. “We’ll talk about a lot of things, including 401(k)s.”

Riordan’s endorsement comes as Greuel builds a strong coalition of support from both labor and union groups. Business groups backing Greuel, like the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, are likely to support having Riordan, a fiscal conservative, on her team.

So, let’s recap: in the span of a few days, Wendy Greuel went from claiming she wants to reopen to negotiation even the most modest, unanimously-voted reform done by the City Council, to announcing that Richard Riordan would head up her policy on dealing with pensions were she to get elected. Do you have whiplash? I do. And I’m not the only one.

Union leaders backed Wendy Greuel because they felt they could trust her. Do they still feel that way now? Ada Briceno of HERE Local 11 said that they would knock on endless doors from Boyle Heights to San Pedro. Will they still, if it means that every single door-knock they make is one step closer to putting a prominent enemy like Richard Riordan in charge of a possible Mayor Greuel’s pension policy?

It’s a question that matters now more than ever, because the chaos in Wendy Greuel’s campaign isn’t just related to the fact that her multiple positions on pension reform make Mitt Romney’s campaign look like a model of intellectual consistency. Just last night, the Greuel campaign suffered a major staff shakeup in the field department:

In a sign of turmoil in Wendy Greuel’s campaign for Los Angeles mayor, her field director and three others resigned this week after an abrupt shift in strategy to turn out supporters in the May runoff against rival Eric Garcetti.

All four of those who quit were veterans of the high-tech operation used in President Obama’s reelection campaign. They specialize in mining data to target likely supporters and persuade them to vote, a crucial task in close, low-turnout elections.

In a statement Friday, Greuel, the city controller, said she was expanding her field team by hiring consultant Sue Burnside, who worked on Greuel’s previous City Council and controller campaigns. She did not mention the departure of the former Obama operatives: field director Stacy Cohen, data director Joe Kavanagh and regional field directors Maya Hutchinson and Marisa Kanof.

Greuel’s new field consultant, Sue Burnside, uses paid canvassers, whereas the model used by the now-resigned former Obama organizers was volunteer-dependent–and apparently, they didn’t have the volunteers they wanted. But as Parke Skelton told the Times, it’s hard to build a citywide field campaign less than two months before the election.

Maybe the Greuel campaign is relying on their labor support to pick up the slack. But if she’s really relying on SEIU and AFSCME to knock on that next door to put Richard Riordan back in City Hall, she might need a little more help.

This piece first appeared in calitics.co,

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