L.A. Mayoral Race Made History For High Spending, Low Turnout

Los Angeles has elected a new mayor: Eric Garcetti, a longtime city council member and the son of the district attorney who prosecuted O.J. Simpson. The election Tuesday had a record-low voter turnout. Both Garcetti and his opponent, Wendy Gruel, had trouble getting voters excited.

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Los Angeles has a new mayor. Eric Garcetti, the longtime city councilman, will replace Antonio Villaraigosa as head of the nation's second-largest city.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports the campaign saw record-high spending and near record-low voter turnout.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: There was a party in Hollywood last night and Eric Garcetti was the MC.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MAYOR-ELECT ERIC GARCETTI: We have sent a message tonight. And that message is that LA is ready to put the recession in the rearview mirror...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GARCETTI: ...and to become the city of opportunity that I grew up in once again.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ROTT: The LA Garcetti grew up in - the one he's talking about - was hit hard by the economic recession and has struggled to recover ever since. Unemployment in LA still lingers at above 11 percent. Infrastructure is decaying. And the city is projected to run a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit over the next four years, thanks largely to ballooning pensions.

Garcetti's answer?

GARCETTI: On July 1st, we will assume the responsibility of creating jobs, of balancing our city's budget, of keeping our city's streets safe and improving the quality of life for all Angelinos.

ROTT: Now, that list of goals could have been a carbon copy of the things his opponent, Wendy Greuel, was saying all week. She conceded earlier this morning, ending her two-year attempt to become the first woman mayor in city history.

WENDY GREUEL: Now, I may not have been able to break through the glass ceiling last night, but we sure made a crack in it. And because of your hard work - all of our hard work - the next woman candidate in my shoes, I believe, will crash right through.

ROTT: Greuel's chances were hurt by the dismal turnouts at the booths yesterday. LA has roughly 1.8 million registered voters. But yesterday, only around 345,000 cast a ballot. That's about 19 percent. To put that in perspective, San Francisco and Chicago both reported record or near-record low turnouts in their last mayoral elections. But for both of them, those record lows were about 40 percent of registered voters, still twice that of LA's.

DAN SCHNUR: It's really easy for people in other parts of the country to point to those silly Southern Californians as not even being smart enough to care about politics and government and public policy.

ROTT: Dan Schnur is the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

SCHNUR: One of the real obstacles here is something that Los Angeles is currently facing but that many other cities in the United States are beginning to face and will continue to face in years ahead. And that is a city that is not just a single homogeneous community, but rather a collection, a polyglot of many, many, many different geographic and demographic communities. And finding a common agenda and rallying point for all that diversity is a much more difficult challenge.

ROTT: Some of the other reasons Schnur gave: An off-year election, voter fatigue after an earlier primary and the marathon of November's presidential election. And perhaps most importantly, the fact that Garcetti and Greuel, two moderate Democrats, really weren't all that different.

ROY DICKSON JR.: And at the end of the day, it kind of just seemed like they're the same candidate.

ROTT: Roy Dickson, Jr. did not vote. He knew about the election, thanks to the record $33 million both candidates spent on campaigning. But it was the tone of that campaigning that kept him from casting a ballot.

DICKSON: I mean, it still - it actually kind of disgusted me that they could fight, you know, tooth and skin like that, just go at each other when you don't really differ too much on party lines.

ROTT: That doesn't mean Dixon won't be watching when Garcetti takes office in July, he says. It just means the new mayor will have to work that much harder to win him over.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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