Mayoral Hopefuls Agree Business Is Priority but Differ in Plans for Support
By HOWARD FINE
The major candidates for Los Angeles mayor are expressing support for several initiatives to make the city more business-friendly, but they disagree in crucial areas on how to improve the business climate, especially on the controversial issue of modernizing L.A. International Airport.
Those are the findings of last week’s Business Journal survey of four of the five major mayoral candidates: incumbent Mayor James Hahn, state Sen. Richard Alarcon, former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg and City Councilman and former Police Chief Bernard Parks.
City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa who ran for mayor four years ago and earlier this month announced his repeat candidacy declined to participate. Through a spokesman, Villaraigosa said he was still formulating his positions on these issues notwithstanding the fact that several are already before City Council.
All four candidates surveyed said they want to expand the Rapid Bus fleet and the region’s rail network to combat congestion on city streets. And three of the four favor quick passage of business tax reform and said they would expand the mayor’s business team.
All four said they favor imposing a ban on city contractors making campaign contributions to city officials, which is at the heart of the “pay-to-play” investigations that have weakened the Hahn administration.
The ongoing grand jury probe of city contracting, combined with a widespread perception that Hahn has not moved quickly or substantively enough on many key business issues, has prompted some business leaders to look for alternative candidates.
“There is a high level of frustration among businesses in dealing with the cost of doing business in the city, especially the business tax,” said Christopher Martin, co-chairman and chief executive of AC Martin Partners Inc. and vice chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It seems that people in City Hall really don’t understand what it’s like to run a business. They are catering to voters who seem to think it’s OK to take advantage of big business,” he said.
While business issues are not likely to resonate with the larger public, they could become crucial in a tight campaign.
“This will be an especially competitive election,” said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton closely tracks L.A. politics. “While public safety appears to be the number one issue right now, the rest of the issues like the business team, like the business tax are not locked up. And in a close race, they could become pivotal.”
The sharpest difference among the candidates is on the compromise plan by Hahn and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski to modernize LAX. The plan includes Hahn’s original proposals to consolidate rental car facilities, reconfigure the runways and connect the Green Line to the airport, while putting on hold more controversial proposals such as an offsite parking and check-in structure and the demolition of three terminals.
Hahn was the only respondent to the survey who supported this approach. Hertzberg said he was still evaluating the proposal. “We can design a better plan for LAX without starting from scratch,” he said.
Alarcon and Parks oppose the Hahn-Miscikowski plan, saying they favor dropping proposals to build an offsite parking and check-in structure and to tear down three terminals.
“The Hahn plan forces the city into the worst of all scenarios,” Alarcon said. “I view these yellow-lighted projects with great skepticism,” he added, referring to the projects that have been put on hold pending additional study.
The other area of disagreement was the business tax, where Parks has held off his support because of concerns about the impacts on the city budget. On Aug. 6, he introduced a motion calling for further study of the tax, to the dismay of tax reform proponents and fellow councilmembers Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel.
“We don’t know how much impact this will have on city revenues and I don’t want unintended consequences,” Parks said. “So we must proceed very cautiously on reforming the business tax.”
While Hahn has held a similar position in the past, he said last week he wants to move ahead on “comprehensive tax reform,” though he stopped short of saying he wants to see action by the Oct. 31 deadline put forth by a business coalition. Hahn did say he wants immediate action on his proposal to eliminate business taxes on companies with revenues less than $100,000.
Outside these areas, though, there was general agreement among the candidates, which is not surprising given the non-partisan nature of the race.
“You’ve got five Democrats here, none of whom will march in lock-step with the business community but who all want and need business support,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester.
Guerra said the candidates are trying to perform a balancing act: wanting business support but not wanting to alienate labor and other key constituencies.
Also, the city’s business community itself is divided in its positions. Many downtown interests have lined up behind Hahn, but others, especially in the San Fernando Valley, are either supporting or leaning toward Hertzberg. The attorney and former Assembly speaker sits on the Valley Industry and Commerce Association board and has strong support from many of its members.
“What business is looking for in these candidates is not general statements of support for their issues but more like, ‘What my administration will do and when,'” said Martin Cooper, VICA’s chairman.
Parks has tried to stake himself as the candidate most in line with the business community: He was the only council vote last week against the ordinance that limits supercenters in much of the city. But even this approach has its limits, as shown with his Aug. 6 move to slow business tax reform.
Despite frequent attacks on Hahn by the other candidates, only occasionally did the three challengers in the survey take on the mayor’s positions. One area where they did agree was on the need to beef up the business team, a unit of the mayor’s office charged with attracting and retaining businesses and addressing problems of specific businesses.
Hahn said that he views the key elements for improving the business climate as continuing to boost public safety and the supply of affordable housing.
“Making L.A. the safest big city in America will make L.A. more business friendly,” he said. “In New York, Bill Bratton showed that if you reduce crime, you improve the economy. That’s what we’re working to do here.”