Los Angeles mayoral candidates offer no choice for the working class

By Kevin Martinez and Don Knowland
25 February 2013

A primary election for mayor will be held in the city of Los Angeles, California on March 5. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to compete in the general election in May.

The city is on the brink of bankruptcy. The budget deficit for Los Angeles is by some estimates as high as $1 billion. The leading candidates have sought to outdo each other in promising pension reform and other cuts for workers, and more tax breaks for big business.

The current mayor, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, who is barred from seeking another term, has sought to increase the retirement age for new city workers from 55 to 67. In addition, Villaraigosa has proposed to cap pension benefits at 75 percent of final compensation, reduce cost of living adjustments, and eliminate health benefits for dependents of pensioners.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti, a Democrat and one of the two leading candidates according to polls, told radio station KPCC, “It’s important for us to finish the structural work, and new employees have certainly been a part of it… I’m already walking the path of pension reform.”

As council president, Garcetti negotiated with unions to increase workers’ contributions to pensions and health care by 5 percent. City workers now pay 11 percent of their retirement fund.

Last week, Garcetti won the endorsement of The Los Angeles Times, the city’s most politically influential newspaper. The Times specifically cited Garcetti’s role as city council president in imposing attacks on the city’s workers.

While admitting that Garcetti, “must bear some responsibility for the city's current fiscal problems, which were dramatically worsened when the council negotiated employee contracts that were unaffordable…,” it now writes approvingly, “As council president, he worked behind the scenes to awaken his colleagues to the depth of the city's financial crisis and to take action they did not want to take, imposing layoffs and requiring those remaining in the workforce to shoulder more of the burden of their medical and pension benefits.”

In its endorsement of Garcetti, the Times, speaking for wealthy, mostly Democratic, circles, has made clear that their preference is a candidate that has experience attacking workers’ livelihoods, without antagonizing the trade unions, “not because he wants to, but because he saw that he had to.”

The other major candidates are City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilwoman Jan Perry, both Democrats; attorney and former talk radio host Kevin James, a Republican; and investment analyst Emanuel Pleitez. They all agree that attacks on pensions are “on the table;” they only purport to differ on whether or not to include the public sector unions in this attack.

The candidates’ uniform calls for cuts to pensions, by way of raising the retirement age and contributions from workers, is wholly in line with the state and federal policy of raiding workers’ retirement funds to meet demands for austerity from the ruling class.

A recent debate held at Cal State Northridge was moderated by Austin Beutner, a former investment banker for the giant private equity firm the Blackstone Group. Beutner spoke on behalf of Wall Street, which demands that workers pay for the city’s deficit through pension “reform.” The five leading candidates tried to outdo each other in jumping on board with such schemes.

Beutner asked the candidates how they would close the city’s deficit, prompting Garcetti to state that his goal would be to cut the city’s health care costs by $50 million by increasing workers’ contributions to their health insurance.

Greuel claimed that her office had uncovered $60 million in “waste, fraud, and abuse.” She asked, “Has the city done enough to tighten their belt? Has DWP [the Department of Water and Power] done enough to tighten their belt? Have the other departments done the same?”

Despite her calls for cuts across the board, Greuel proposed to hire 2,000 police officers (and 1,000 firefighters and paramedics) by 2020.

Although it would likewise reduce city revenue, Garcetti and Greuel also came out in favor of eliminating the tax on city businesses, including on giant entertainment conglomerates that call Hollywood their home.

The leading candidates all pander and kowtow to this industry. Garcetti proposes the creation of a “film czar,” a lobbyist to represent the interests of large entertainment corporations in the state capitol in Sacramento. Perry and Greuel call for increased state tax credits for local filming.

Greuel boasts of how she once worked for DreamWorks Productions, meeting on a daily basis with prominent Hollywood executives, and that she has won the endorsement of IATSE, the union that represents stagehands and film technicians. Gruel has in fact garnered the endorsements of Hollywood bigwigs.

At another recent debate at the Sinai Temple, the five candidates pledged their allegiance to the “private sector,” i.e. the big banks and corporations. Kevin James promised to “bring jobs back” to Los Angeles by making the city more “friendly” to “small business” and the “private sector.” He also called on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to create a “trade tech diploma” or vocational training, stating, “not every child is college bound.”

In regards to raising pension contributions from workers and reducing city services, Perry said she was the “only” candidate willing to make the “very difficult decisions” to close the deficit, repeating the austerity mantra “I want us to live within our means.”

None of the candidates proposed anything to benefit workers—only cutbacks in wages, pensions and public services. This in a city with 10 percent official unemployment, with real unemployment closer to 20 percent.

The recent announcement that LAUSD approved a “parent trigger” for 24th Street Elementary school in impoverished south central Los Angeles, whereby parents can petition and vote to turn their public school into a charter school, was welcomed by James, Perry, and Pleitez.

Although Greuel and Garcetti have so far not commented on charter schools, Garcetti has won the endorsement of the United Teacher of Los Angeles union (UTLA), which supported Mayor Villaraigosa in the last election and backs charter schools. Villaraigosa himself was a former UTLA organizer and has been a key backer of the pro-charter group “Parent Revolution.”

The “charterization” of Los Angeles Unified is a direct consequence of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” plan, whereby schools are forced to compete with one another for dwindling state and federal funds, and Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s strategy of utilizing the “parent trigger” law to privatize school districts. The so-called “underperforming” schools, which are often those in impoverished areas, are closed down to make way for profit-oriented charter schools.

Billions have been cut from K-12 education under Brown, and thousands of teachers have been laid off since the start of the recession in 2007, never to return. None of the candidates has opposed these measures. LA City schools now register a paltry 61 percent high school graduation rate.

Greuel and Garcetti are in an all-out scramble to obtain union endorsements. These endorsements are critical, not just for purposes of fundraising. Whoever wins their support will have an ally in imposing draconian cuts on city workers.

With the candidates unable to offer the working class anything but austerity and cuts, the role of identity politics predictably has reared its head, with each seeking the support of various constituencies on the basis of their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and even religion. None offers anything for the working.