With the term-limited mayoral run of Antonio Villaraigosa coming to an end, a number of possible candidates are lining up to test the waters in a quest to become L.A.’s next mayor. Two potential major candidates are successful businessmen: developer Rick Caruso and investment banker Austin Beutner.

I had an opportunity to see both men in action recently. Beutner attended a small gathering of the Valley Vote board of directors meeting, while Caruso, also in the San Fernando Valley, was speaking to a couple of hundred members of the United Chambers of Commerce.

Both Caruso and Beutner have spent some time in government. Caruso served on L.A. commissions including the Police Commission. Beutner worked as Villaraigosa’s deputy mayor for economic and business policy, but also worked for the U.S. State Department in Russia, helping the former Soviet Union transition to a market economy.

A number of analysts looking at the coming race feel the environment is similar to the time Republican attorney and businessman Richard Riordan captured the mayor’s office in 1993. The opportunity may be there for a business executive to take control of the city government once again.

Beutner and Caruso have similar outlooks when they talk about correcting the ills of Los Angeles. Both emphasize treating the city’s citizens like customers. Both attack the gross receipts tax system as detrimental to business. Caruso boldly said the tax kills jobs and should eventually be eliminated. Beutner also said the gross receipts tax must be changed and pointed to efforts he made as deputy mayor, such as a tax holiday for new businesses, to encourage businesses to come to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is losing the battle for jobs. As Caruso stated in his speech, since 1980, while the city’s population gained 1 million people and cities surrounding Los Angeles gained 500,000 jobs, Los Angeles lost 50,000.

Beutner and Caruso both displayed ideas on dealing with two of L.A.’s most serious problems: education and transportation. Caruso resisted the idea of more subways, arguing trains should be run down the center of freeways.

Both business execs could self-fund their campaigns, but neither plans to do so. Beutner is fundraising; Caruso said he would raise funds as well if he runs.

Both potential candidates would be fighting for the same base and they make similar arguments on the issues of the day. So what might separate them in the public eye.

Name recognition

Caruso has the better name recognition at this point. He will be labeled a developer. Not the best title in this town, but his projects such as the Grove shopping and entertainment center are very popular. (He noted the Grove had 20 million visitors a year compared with Disneyland’s 13 million, although I suspect that the admission price might have something to do with the disparity in those numbers.)

Beutner will have to deal with how he defines his role with the current mayor and how popular Villaraigosa is come election time.

The situation in which I watched them was quite different, and a side-by-side comparison is difficult. Beutner appeared serious and reserved. Caruso, addressing a large audience, was relaxed. Beutner was challenged with more specific questions than Caruso, who was asked how he could save the Dodgers. Both handled the Q&A well.

With jobs and the economy the No. 1 issue for many voters, the timing might be right for the candidacies of well-off businessmen who emphasize their job-creating abilities.

Riordan proved that a business leader with no elected experience could do a credible job running the city. Beutner and Caruso hope the voters retain fond memories of his leadership. Beutner has the advantage of already having secured Riordan’s endorsement, although Riordan’s endorsement of another businessman, Steve Soboroff, to succeed him did not turn the race in Soboroff’s favor.

Beutner and Caruso will not be the only candidates for the job. In fact, there are many with much greater name recognition who could fill out a large field of candidates: Elected politicians such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Controller Wendy Gruel, state Sen. Alex Padilla, City Councilwoman Jan Perry and City Council President Eric Garcetti, as well as talk radio host and attorney Kevin James, and perhaps even a surprise or two like former Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

But Caruso and Beutner, with their business credentials, will constitute a special competition within the larger political campaign.

If policy is similar, personality and the way they conduct their campaigns will make the difference.

Joel Fox is president of the Small Business Action Committee in California, editor of the political/business blog FoxandHoundsDaily.com and author of the mystery novel “Lincoln’s Hand.”

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