Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti opened a convincing election-night lead in his bid to become the first Jewish mayor of America’s second-largest city as it faces an increasingly gloomy financial outlook, returns showed late on Tuesday.
Garcetti, whose mother is Jewish, drew 53 percent of the vote, compared with 47 percent for his opponent, city Controller Wendy Greuel, after tabulation of more than a third of ballots cast at polling stations on Tuesday and all mail-in ballots received as of last Friday.
The early results were roughly in line with an exit poll of voters conducted on Tuesday by Loyola Marymount University that predicted Garcetti would defeat Greuel by 8 percentage points.
“The results aren’t all in, but this is shaping up to be a great night,” Garcetti told cheering supporters at the Hollywood Palladium, a landmark concert hall, in a celebratory speech that stopped just short of declaring victory.
“Thank you to the voters of Los Angeles who voted for strong, independent leadership to lead this city forward,” he said, crediting a “people-powered campaign” for his apparent success.
But Greuel made clear she was not ready to concede defeat.
“No one said it was going to be easy or quick, but when you’re playing the championship of L.A. politics, sometimes the game goes into overtime,” she told her supporters at the Los Angeles Exchange nightclub downtown.
The two liberal Democrats, once allies on the City Council, spent record sums vying for the city’s highest office in a race shaped by dire fiscal constraints, the political clout of public employee unions and a largely disinterested electorate.
The pair emerged as the top two vote-getters in a non-partisan primary in March to replace Antonio Villaraigosa, a charismatic former labor organizer and two-term mayor who faced off against the city’s unions to implement budget cuts born of the economic downturn.
Turnout for the election, marked by a heavy dose of negative ads and two candidates seen as largely indistinguishable in their positions, was expected to be low, with perhaps fewer than 25 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
Greuel, 51, was seeking to be the first woman elected Los Angeles mayor, and Garcetti, 42, the first Jew. His mother is Jewish, and he was raised as Jewish.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst with the USC Price School of Public Policy, said the biggest contrast between Greuel and Garcetti seemed to lie in their personal styles.
“I characterize this race as Valley girl vs. urban hipster,” she said, referring to the city’s heavily suburban San Fernando Valley region seen as Greuel’s political stronghold.
Garcetti, who earned a reputation as a consensus builder, 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.
A onetime Rhodes scholar, he is the son of former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who was the city’s top prosecutor during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in the 1990s. The elder Garcetti joined his son on stage for his speech at the Palladium.
Greuel, touting her current role as a city controller in uncovering waste and fraud, drew a high-profile endorsement from former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who she worked for in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In her former council post she highlighted her dedication to street repairs in her suburban district and embraced the nickname “Pothole Queen.”
The new mayor will inherit 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 growth.
Both said they would seek to renegotiate a five-year, 25 percent pay increase they supported in 2007 for most of the city’s 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 led 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 on a slew of negative television ads from both sides.