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From history to Hollywood, Los Angeles mayoral race offers it all

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 1:01 PM EDT, Sat May 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Garcetti, a city councilman, would be the city's first Jewish mayor
  • Wendy Greuel, the city controller, would be the first woman mayor
  • They both have worked in Hollywood
  • Their seesaw race has become heated over union campaign spending

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Voters in the nation's second-largest city will elect a new mayor Tuesday in a race that will make history and offer a possible indicator on public sentiment toward unions representing municipal employees during a budget crisis.

Incumbent Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor here in more than 130 years, is stepping down after eight years because of term limits.

Tuesday's faceoff is between City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel. Both are longtime political players in Los Angeles.

Here are four things you should know about them and the election, where polls show a seesaw battle.

Making history

Either candidate will make City Hall history with a victory.

Greuel, 51, would be the first woman mayor.

"Together, we'll get one step closer to breaking one more glass ceiling and electing our city's first woman mayor," her website tells voters.

Garcetti, 42, would be the first Jewish mayor. Garcetti's mother is Jewish, and his father, Gil, the former district attorney whose office lost in the OJ Simpson murder trial in the 1990s, is of Mexican and Italian descent.

"I always felt myself to be Jewish and Latino very comfortably," Garcetti told the Jewish Journal. "Weekends were both filled with bowls of menudo and lots of bagels."

But it may be Los Angeles' vast Latino demographic that could swing an election in which voter turnout is projected to be low.

In the homestretch, both candidates have been scrambling to capture the Latino bloc, highlighting their ties to the community and launching attack ads against each other.

Hispanics make up 45% of the city's population and almost a third of the electorate, and their influence was widely viewed as evident with the history-setting election of Villaraigosa.

Greuel has highlighted her ties to Latino leaders, and Garcetti touts his grandparents from Mexico.

The attack ads, however, are painting a different picture.

Garcetti is portrayed as wearing a Latino mask and displacing Hispanic families during the revitalization of Hollywood, an area Garcetti represents as councilman.

Greuel registered as a Republican in the early 1990s when the California governor was Republican Pete Wilson, who is reviled by Latinos for backing Proposition 187 that denied certain government benefits to undocumented immigrants. The courts struck down most of that initiative. Greuel said she opposed Proposition 187.

In the closing days of the election, Garcetti had a seven-point lead over Greuel, according to a USC Price School of Public Policy/Los Angeles Times poll released Friday.

Garcetti was leading among Latino voters (53% to 43%), but Greuel was leading among black voters (48% to 25%).

Surprisingly, however, Garcetti also was leading among women voters, despite Greuel's historic quest: 47% to 43%, the poll said.

Still, the poll found, "gender was the top reason given when voters were asked about their support of Greuel. Among Greuel supporters, 13% said they are voting for her because she is a woman and 'we need a female mayor,'" pollsters said.

Lights, camera, action!

Both candidates are lifelong Angelenos with extensive political resumes.

But what sets them apart from mayoral candidates in other major cities is that both boast of having worked in Hollywood.

Perhaps that's not too surprising in the nation's entertainment capital.

Starting in 1997, Greuel worked in the film industry for five years at DreamWorks, where she worked beside director Steven Spielberg and Hollywood mavens Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Greuel was a studio liaison to the government sector and organized political fundraisers for the three founders of DreamWorks.

For his part in showbiz, Garcetti appeared in cameo roles in such productions as "All My Children" and even played a fictional mayor on television.

He also is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, he says.

Both candidates are touting those sensitivities to Hollywood as the entertainment industry in Los Angeles has been facing stiff competition from outside the state, enhanced by tax incentives or lower costs.

The Los Angeles job base thrives partly on Hollywood productions staying local.

Obama-Clinton Part II

California, a Democratic stronghold, was a major battleground between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Villaraigosa put all his chips on Clinton and endorsed her. In this month's election on his successor, Villaraigosa isn't extending an endorsement, though he has lamented the recent negative turn in campaign ads.

Clinton won the California primary, but Obama went on to win the presidency.

Political observers are casting Greuel and Garcetti as modern-day proxies of that Clinton-Obama rivalry.

Greuel supported Clinton in the 2008 race. In fact, Greuel worked in the presidential administration of her husband former President Bill Clinton, who is endorsing her in this month's race.

Garcetti was one of five co-chairpersons for Obama's 2008 campaign in California.

Bill Clinton has been visible in his support of Greuel; Obama has refrained from weighing in on the race because the candidates are both Democrats.

Despite the two candidates' Democratic credentials, Garcetti is viewed as more conservative, if his support among conservative voters is any indication.

The USC/Los Angeles Times poll found Garcetti with a 21-point lead among conservative voters: He led Greuel 54% to 33%.

Curiously, he was leading her in other parts of the political spectrum, too, but with smaller margins: Garcetti was ahead 45 to 44 among moderates and 50 to 43 among liberals, the poll said.

In fact, Garcetti was leading Greuel on her home turf in the San Fernando Valley, 47% to 43%, the poll said.

The USC/Los Angeles Times survey reveals a quick change in fortunes for the two candidates.

A week before that poll, Greuel and Garcetti were in a virtual tie, according to the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

The electorate gave the institute a vivid assessment of the two candidates.

"More voters say that Garcetti, by a slight margin, will be the better candidate in providing leadership and fighting crime, while voters prefer Greuel for handling education and as a candidate who 'cares about people like me,'" the institute said.

"The most cited negative by likely voters against Greuel is that she is too close to special interests and unions, and the most noted criticism of Garcetti is that he cannot be trusted," the institute added.

Union clout

Among the biggest issues in the mayoral race is the role of unions and their campaign spending.

Greuel is receiving big financial support from unions representing city employees. Most of those unions have put their money on her, including about $1.5 million from the local representing workers at the city's Department of Water and Power.

The cost of city jobs are part of the budget crisis that awaits the new mayor, who will have to help negotiate salary agreements with the water department, police, fire, and other city employees.

To help the city balance its budget, Garcetti has backed layoffs, furloughs and an increase in the retirement age for new city workers. A few unions have endorsed Garcetti, but their money is a fraction of what Greuel has received.

Greuel has criticized Garcetti for proposing draconian measures against labor.

In response, Garcetti calls his opponent "the DWP's mayor" and asks voters: "How much will it cost you?"

Voters will render their verdict on the two candidates on Tuesday.

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