Political Junkie
1:36 pm
Tue May 21, 2013

Why Don't We Pay (More/Any) Attention To Los Angeles Mayoral Elections?

Horace Greeley may have suggested at one point that going west might be a good idea, but he probably wouldn't be happy to see what's going on with Los Angeles as of late. The Dodgers are in last place in the National League West, the Angels are hovering near the bottom of the American League West, and the Lakers' appearance in the playoffs was brutally short. Even Jimmy Fallon and NBC are bringing The Tonight Show back to Manhattan, deserting some place called Burbank after 40 years.

But if there is anything involving Los Angeles that always seems to get short shrift, it's their election for mayor. Many political junkies can quote you chapter and verse about the classic battles for City Hall in, say, New York or Chicago, but rarely does L.A. come into the conversation. And that certainly is true of today's (May 21) election.

Certainly, it's an election with historic potential. Wendy Greuel, the city controller, is one of the two candidates in the runoff, and if she wins she'll become the city's first female mayor. (New York can't even boast that, though that outcome is a possibility later this year.) Her opponent, city Councilmember Eric Garcetti, is 42 years old; if elected, he'd be the youngest mayor in more than a century. He'd also be the city's first elected Jewish (or half-Jewish) mayor; his mom is Jewish.

(L.A. once did have a Jewish mayor, Bernard Cohn, but as the Los Angeles Times' Patt Morrison points out in a fun column, he was "an appointee who served only a couple of weeks in 1878 after the elected mayor died." Still, Morrison adds, he "managed to stay in the headlines for years, once the world learned that he had kept his Jewish wife and three children on one end of town and his Catholic Latina mistress and six more children on the other.")

But I digress. Los Angeles mayoral elections are officially non-partisan; Greuel and Garcetti happen to be Democrats. And, quite frankly, neither is exactly lighting up the joint. They are both earnest, sincere, non-ideological candidates, neither of which seems certain as to how to handle the growing deficit, let alone tell voters which way they intend to take the city. No one is confusing their imagination and vision with what catapulted Antonio Villaraigosa into office eight years ago. Some of Villaraigosa's goals were met, while many — such as planting a million new trees — were not. The term-limited mayor leaves with his outsized personality and charisma still intact, but with a sense that a lot still needs to get done.

Perhaps this is the perfect time for a Garcetti or a Greuel to take over. Neither has promised much, so maybe there will be less likelihood of a voter letdown. But it's just hard to get worked up about it all.

Looking back. Not every L.A. mayoral race has put voters to sleep, but it would be a fair wager that voters would prefer a dull contest to the vitriol and ugliness of what happened in 1969. Back then, two-term Mayor Sam Yorty had long been on the outs with his fellow Democrats, having challenged Gov. Pat Brown in the 1966 primary and ultimately endorsing Republican Ronald Reagan in the fall. He was an all-out hawk on Vietnam and felt that the civil rights movement was being hijacked by Communists; his rhetoric during the Watts riots of 1965 was filled with distrust and innuendo. In the '69 contest, Thomas Bradley, a black city councilman, clobbered Yorty in the initial election, 42-26 percent. But Yorty made overtly racial appeals in the runoff and won by more than 50,000 votes out of some 800,000-plus cast.

(Check out this great 1969 archival footage of the first primary from ABC News and the runoff campaign from CBS News, courtesy of YouTube.)

Four years later, with Yorty's act wearing thin, Bradley led Yorty in the initial election and beat him in the runoff by 100,000 votes, including a majority of white voters, becoming the city's first African-American mayor.

Bradley is the longest-serving mayor in L.A. history, winning a total of five terms (including a rout of Yorty in 1981). In 1989, Bradley got a majority in the first round and didn't need to go into a runoff, and that hadn't happened with any L.A. mayor in decades. Like Yorty, Bradley sought the governorship twice, but Yorty never managed to win his party's nomination. Bradley was the Democratic nominee in both 1982 and 1986, losing each time to George Deukmejian (R); in '82 he was within an eyelash of becoming governor.

But his fifth term, which was marred by charges of police brutality and a worsening of race relations, all but collapsed in the riots that followed the 1992 trial in which L.A. police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King, riots that led to deaths and massive property damage ... and a great loss to Bradley's leadership and legacy. He retired a broken man in 1993.

Then came Richard Riordan, a Republican who stressed his business experience and his promise to crack down on crime, a clear reference to what had happened to the city in the latter years of Bradley's tenure. Riordan became the first GOP mayor since Norris Poulson was ousted by Yorty in '61, and was re-elected in a 1997 landslide.

2001 brought James Hahn to city hall. Hahn was a long time government insider, serving as city controller as well as city attorney. Perhaps equally important was that he was the son of the legendary Kenneth Hahn, a longtime county supervisor who was well known as a civil rights champion and beloved in the black community. Jimmy Hahn was elected by some 40,000 votes, defeating Villaraigosa, who had been the speaker of the state Assembly. But Hahn made the controversial decision to replace Police Chief Bernard Parks, an African-American, and that cost him dearly with black voters. Villaraigosa, with the kind of charisma Hahn never had, walloped him in the 2005 rematch. He became the city's first Latino mayor since Cristobal Aguilar, who served from 1871-72.

And that brings us to today's runoff. Polls show Garcetti ahead, as he has been since the March 5 initial primary, in which he finished with 33 percent to Greuel's 29 percent.

Pittsburgh primary. As has been the case since the early 1930s, the winner of today's Democratic primary will become Pittsburgh's next mayor. Luke Ravenstahl, who became mayor in 2006 following the death of the incumbent and who got national attention for becoming, at age 26, the youngest mayor in the city's history, is not seeking re-election. With four candidates on the ballot, Tuesday's primary is basically between city Councilman Bill Peduto, who has often sparred with Ravenstahl, and Jack Wagner, a former state Auditor General who ran for governor

Pudding On the Ritz. In two previous Political Junkie columns (July 2, 2012 and Nov. 1, 2005) a question appeared concerning the meaning of an obscure campaign button — "I Like Judge Sutton and Rice Pudding Too!" I of course had no idea what it was in reference to either. But now the mystery has been solved. Milo Pyne of Durham, N.C., put a picture of the button on Facebook, asking for answers, and got his answer: "One of the local papers [in Nashville, Tenn.], the Banner I think, used to ask local attorneys to rate the judges. One comment made was that Judge Sutton had 'rice pudding for brains.' I remember my dad nearly fell out of the chair laughing at that because he'd had dealings with him and agreed completely."

No news is too trivial for Political Junkie.

By the way, there were several objections to my trivia answer on the May 1 Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. The question was, "Who was the most recent vice presidential candidate who, while out of office, later ran for the Senate?" My answer: Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 VP candidate, ran for the Senate from New York in 1992 and again in '98. Several people — Zachary Doering, Cathy Reynolds of Toledo, Ohio; Tim Cross of Williamsburg, Va.; Barbara Gunderson of Albany, N.Y.; Bill Simenson of Minneapolis, Minn.; Robert Smith of Denver, Colo.; Brent Rogers of Sydney, Australia; and Zachary Doering all thought the answer should have been Walter Mondale, an ex-VP who ran for the Senate from Minnesota in 2002 after the death of Paul Wellstone. But I specifically said that I was looking for the most recent VP candidate, not the one who ran for the Senate most recently. And Mondale was a VP candidate in 1976 and '80.

OK, so you guys don't get a t-shirt, but you do get honorable mention.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on the growing list of Obama controversies, everything from the Benghazi talking points to the IRS focusing on conservative groups to the Justice Department combing through the phone records of Associated Press reporters. Special guest: former DNC chair Howard Dean. You can listen to the segment here:

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me. I was out last week; the link below is the previous week's offering.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a TOTN T-shirt, but also a 3-1/2 inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

Last week's winner: Michael Ruffin of Fitzgerald, Ga.

ON THE CALENDAR:

May 21 — Los Angeles mayoral runoff. Also: Pittsburgh mayoral primary.

June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned. Also: New Jersey gov. primaries.

June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.

June 26— Final "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation. TOTN ends on Thursday, June 27.

Aug. 6 — Seattle mayoral primary.

Sept. 10 — New York City mayoral primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: President Richard Nixon nominates Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the United States. Burger, a 61-year old native of Minnesota and a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, would replace Earl Warren, chief justice since 1953, who is retiring. Burger is seen as a "strict constructionist" and a a conservative, compared to Warren, described as an "activist" and liberal Supreme Court justice (May 21, 1969). The Senate will confirm Burger June 9 on a 74-3 vote. The three opponents, all Democrats: Gaylord Nelson (Wis.), Eugene McCarthy (Minn.) and Stephen Young (Ohio).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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