LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Voters in Los Angeles, a city still struggling to rebound from a sustained economic slump, headed to the polls on Tuesday to choose a candidate for mayor from among a field of contenders whose front-runners are calling for cuts in business taxes.
The non-partisan primary election in the nation’s second-largest metropolis was expected to end with the top two contenders advancing to a May runoff, as no candidate is likely to secure a majority of the electorate to win outright.
The eventual victor will succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ranks as one of the nation’s most high-profile Latino politicians and chaired the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He is barred from running again after two terms in office.
Taking the lead in fund-raising and public opinion polls are City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, followed by former talk-show host Kevin James and City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
Garcetti, Greuel and Perry are all Democrats, and James is a Republican, who if elected would also become the first openly gay mayor to take office in the mostly liberal Southern California city.
While a USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll conducted late last month showed Garcetti and Greuel to be the clear front-runners, the same survey found considerable fluidity remaining in the electorate.
Among voters who said they had decided on a candidate, 46 percent said they could still change their minds, a factor that could swing the race unexpectedly, especially given the relatively low voter turnout anticipated.
Reflecting that lack of conviction, voter Mary Milelzcik, 64, said she cast her primary ballot for Greuel. “But I don’t know if I’ll vote for her in the final runoff. I’ll need more information about how she’s going to get things done.”
Just over a third of registered voters cast ballots in the last mayoral primary in which no incumbent was seeking re-election, in 2001, when Villaraigosa first ran. He was defeated in a runoff only to win office four years later.
At a polling place in the Venice neighborhood, election workers said 82 voters had turned out in the first five hours of the election, which they described as lighter than usual for a mayor’s race.
Across town, an election worker was shot and wounded outside a polling station in the Watts community in what police said was a “domestic dispute.” The polling place remained open, and there was no sign the shooting was election-related, police said.
The city’s sluggish economy and bleak fiscal outlook are likely to overshadow other issues preoccupying the next mayor, and they have loomed large in the campaign.
All three leading candidates - Garcetti, Greuel and James - have called for reducing business taxes to promote economic growth, even as the city scrounges to plug a budget hole set to top $1 billion over the next four years.
They also oppose a Villaraigosa-backed half-cent sales tax hike on the ballot and have urged an overhaul of the city’s business tax structure, which varies by type of commerce. Internet-based companies, for instance, are taxed at $1 per $1,000 in receipts, while professional service firms pay $5 per $1,000.
The two front-runners were separated in the USC Price poll by just 2 percentage points - 27 percent for Garcetti to 25 percent for Greuel - despite sharp differences in their political pedigree and backgrounds.
Garcetti, 42, who served as council president from 2006 to 2011, is known as a consensus builder who has touted his record on environmental initiatives and his role in the urban revival of once-blighted areas of Hollywood.
A onetime Rhodes scholar, he is also the son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who was the city’s top prosecutor during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
Greuel, 51, in her current role as controller is tasked with uncovering waste and fraud, while in her former position on the council she was known as the “Pothole Queen” for her dedication to street repair in her suburban district.
She previously served as a deputy mayor in the administration of late former Mayor Tom Bradley.
Garcetti and Greuel have led in fundraising by pulling in more than $4 million in contributions each, according to campaign records from the city. But Greuel, a former DreamWorks executive, has received an added boost in over $2 million spent independently on her behalf, records show.
Most of that comes from a group called Working Californians to Elect Wendy Greuel that is backed, in large part, by city employee unions. Outside groups and individuals have set a record by spending more than $4.8 million for or against the mayoral candidates and the contenders for other city offices.
James, 50, had 15 percent support in the USC Price poll, and Perry, 58, who represents a sliver of the city’s downtown and areas to the south, stood at 14 percent. She was first elected to the council in 2001.
Additional reporting by Dana Feldman and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Paul Simao and Bernard Orr