Over the course of the recently completed L.A. city election campaign, former Mayor Richard Riordan endorsed no fewer than three candidates for his old job – Austin Beutner, Kevin James and Wendy Greuel. The only thing they have in common is that none of them is Eric Garcetti. Yet after searching for the last several months for almost any conceivable alternative to Garcetti, Riordan might now end up being the new mayor’s most valuable asset.

Because Garcetti was so successful in painting Greuel’s financial backing from the city’s public employee unions as a negative for her candidacy, he secured unexpected levels of support from moderate and conservative voters across the city. Despite her endorsements from most leading business organizations, pre-election polling showed that Angelenos believed by more than a 2-1 margin that Greuel would prioritize the interests of organized labor above those of the entire city. The election ultimately became a referendum on Greuel and, more specifically, on the perception that she would be beholden to city employees if elected.

That impetus for Garcetti’s victory now provides him with a unique opportunity to fundamentally alter the city’s budgetary landscape, if he chooses to take advantage of it. When the incoming mayor first meets with the heads of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other city unions, he will do so with the knowledge that not only was he elected without their support but, in fact, was able to win decisively over their active opposition. He doesn’t owe them a thing – and both he and the union leadership know it.

While Garcetti understands that union contracts are certainly not the only contributing factor to the city’s budget mess, he also understands both the substantive and symbolic importance of moving aggressively on this front. This is where Riordan’s ongoing presence in local politics becomes so important to Garcetti. Late last year, Riordan and his allies decided not to move forward with a ballot initiative for this spring that would have dramatically reduced the city’s pension obligations. Although their decision to pull back was a result of their difficulties in securing signatures to qualify their measure, in retrospect the delay might have been a blessing in disguise for both Riordan and Garcetti.

Pension reform

Had last week’s ballot included a pension reform initiative, both candidates would have campaigned vehemently to its likely defeat. Both Garcetti and Greuel had quickly opposed the measure when Riordan first announced it, and their continued opposition would have blurred the key distinction between them that became such a valuable asset to Garcetti in the weeks leading up to the election. But if Riordan decides to renew his efforts and take on another initiative campaign, Mayor Garcetti will have much more flexibility in his response than he did as a candidate. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was noticeably measured when asked about the proposal last year. A similarly ambivalent reaction from Garcetti could be of great help to Riordan the next time around, the prospect of which will hover over the next several rounds of budget negotiations.

Although there was little evidence of it during the campaign, Garcetti’s relationship with organized labor is a very strong and mutually respectful one. In a Nixon-goes-to-China scenario, this might make him the ideal leader to take on the benefit and pension obligations that have created such havoc with L.A.’s budget. Labor leaders might not like the cost-saving measures that the new mayor offers them. But after the backlash directed at them in the May 21 election, they are savvy enough to understand that feeding the flames of public discontent by refusing any compromise with Garcetti could give Riordan’s initiative a populist booster shot that could make it much harder to derail.

Angelenos tend to be very supportive of organized labor and its members, but the recent election demonstrated that voters are also concerned about the role that public employee unions play in local politics. This is a less than ideal landscape on which to wage a campaign against pension reform. Offering a few concessions to a pro-labor mayor might be a necessary way to avoid the much harsher rebuke that Riordan and his allies would put before the voters.

In the days after the election, sensationalistic headlines proclaimed that labor’s influence in Los Angeles would be dramatically reduced. Given the extent to which unions and their members have become so interwoven into the fabric of city life, such dire predictions are drastically overstated. But even though Garcetti and Riordan share little in common, the marriage of convenience between an ambitious new mayor with a mandate and a wealthy former mayor on a mission could shake up this city’s political and budgetary status quo in an unprecedented way.

Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

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