LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Voters in Los Angeles went to the polls on Tuesday to choose a new mayor from two Democratic contenders and former city council allies as the long race, characterized by negative campaign ads, came to an end.
City Councilman Eric Garcetti, 42, and Controller Wendy Greuel, 51, are vying for the city’s top spot in a race shaped by the dire financial outlook of America’s second-largest city and the political clout of its public employee unions.
The pair emerged as the top two vote-getters in a non-partisan primary in March to replace Antonio Villaraigosa, a charismatic two-term liberal who faced off against the city’s labor unions to implement budget cuts borne of the economic downturn.
At a polling place in the affluent Brentwood section of Los Angeles, voter Susan Rubinyi admitted she had difficulty deciding between the two pragmatic liberals.
“It was hard for me to choose between the two,” said Rubinyi, a writer who declined to give her age. “So I voted for one in the primary and one this time.”
Another voter who cast his ballot at the 10th Church of Christ in Brentwood said he opted for Garcetti, guided in part by distaste for the flood of negative mailers and ads.
“I don’t like dirty campaigning,” 82-year-old Ed Saraffian said. “Not that Garcetti hasn’t done some himself, but Greuel’s is way over the top.”
Poll officials could provide little early word on turnout. Despite near-daily barrages of negative ads, mailers and email in the campaign, there was little activity at several polling places visited by a Reuters reporter on Tuesday.
A public opinion poll conducted on the mayoral race last week by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found Garcetti leading Greuel, his former City Council ally, by 7 percentage points among likely voters, and by 6 percentage points among those who already had voted by mail.
However, the same poll showed Garcetti’s lead narrowing since April and 11 percent of voters still undecided, while surveys earlier this month put the two in a statistical tie.
Garcetti served as council president from 2006 to 2011 and has called attention to his record on environmental initiatives and his role in the urban revival of once-blighted areas in Hollywood.
Greuel, who if elected would be the city’s first woman mayor, has touted her current role as a city controller in uncovering waste and fraud. In her former council post she touted her dedication to street repairs in her suburban district and embraced the nickname, “Pothole Queen.”
Whoever emerges as the winner will face a city government whose fiscal well-being has been crippled by dwindling tax collections wrought by the housing collapse and prolonged recession of recent years, along with rising public sector wages, pension obligations and other unfunded liabilities.
California’s largest metropolis has a projected budget deficit set to top $1 billion cumulatively over the next four years and both Garcetti and Greuel have vowed to slash city business taxes to help spur economic grown.
Both said they would seek to renegotiate a five-year, 25 percent pay increase they supported in 2007 for most of the city’s 30,0000 municipal workers, which the city’s powerful public employee unions are sure to resist.
The influence of organized labor became a key issue during the race, with Garcetti questioning Greuel’s ability to wring concessions from public employee unions after they contributed heavily to her campaign.
Garcetti leads in campaign spending overall, with $9.4 million in expenditures, compared with $8.9 million for Greuel, according to City Ethics Commission figures. Much of that money has gone to a slew of negative television ads from both sides.
Also on the ballot on Tuesday was a combative race for City Attorney, between incumbent Carmen Trutanich and another longtime local politician, former assemblyman Mike Feuer. Trutanich, who was trailing in the polls, sent a barrage of emails aimed at questioning Feuer’s ethical standards, including one with the headline, “Pants on Fire.”
Three competing measures to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries that many residents complain are overwhelming their neighborhoods are also on the ballot. The measure that wins the most votes would go into effect.
Writing by Steve Gorman and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott and Andre Grenon