Wendy Greuel: Aiming at ever-higher offices

This is one in a series of profiles of the five leading Los Angeles mayoral candidates running in the March 5 election.

Looking back on her three decades of work in and around Los Angeles’ public sector, it would be easy to conclude that Wendy Greuel has been preparing to run for mayor for a long time. 

In public appearances, L.A.’s City Controller traces her political awakening to when she met Mayor Tom Bradley while she was still in high school. Her jobs since then — working as Bradley’s liaison on public policy issues, serving as field operations officer for Southern California with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), even her position as a government affairs executive at the film studio DreamWorks — all have focused on crafting and/or impacting public policy. 

But when, for the first time, Greuel officially announced her intent to run for City Council in a 2002 special election, some of her colleagues and friends were surprised. 

“She never wore that kind of ambition on her sleeve,” said Donna Bojarsky, a veteran political leader who worked for Bradley at the same time as Greuel.

Greuel’s ambition to take on ever-higher offices, and her potential electability, are in full view these days. Armed with $3.6 million in campaign contributions and a bevy of endorsements and organizational support — and buttressed by an independent, union-backed political-action committee — Greuel is today one of the two front runners in the L.A. mayoral race, with decent odds of being elected the first woman to hold the job in the city’s history.

“I don’t want to just be the mayor; I want to do the job of mayor,” Greuel said, sitting in the lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, nursing a half-finished cup of black coffee.

Greuel uses this same line at debates and campaign appearances, and it’s meant to remind voters of her work ethic.

As a city councilmember, Greuel was dubbed the “Pothole Queen” for her attention to repairing streets. Working for HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, Greuel oversaw the agency’s operations to help find temporary housing for people left homeless by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. And, together with Bradley, Greuel helped found the LA’s BEST after-school program. The program started in 1988 with 10 schools; the program now includes 189 schools in the city of Los Angeles. 

“There really isn’t a job that she’s done where she hasn’t performed well,” Bojarsky said. “Her competence is what will inspire confidence.”

Even as she has served in public office, Greuel has also become a wife and mother. She and her husband, filmmaker Dean Schramm, have a 9-year-old son; although Greuel is not Jewish, she and her family are members of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In the run-up to Election Day on March 5, Greuel and all the candidates have been debating one another at venues throughout the city, virtually on a daily basis. And in recent weeks, she has faced increasingly intense questioning from her opponents. Kevin James, a Republican staking his bid on winning over the San Fernando Valley voters whom Greuel represented in the City Council, has been gunning for the controller from the start. Recently, City Councilwoman Jan Perry’s campaign sent out a mailer tying Greuel to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And on Jan. 31, City Councilman Eric Garcetti called into question the math behind Greuel’s claim that she has uncovered $160 million in wasteful and fraudulent spending through her audits of city government expenditures. 

“The $160 million is real, and it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Greuel told the Journal. “It’s a conservative estimate.”

Others, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, have reacted with skepticism to Greuel’s proposal to grow the police and firefighting forces by 2,000 by the year 2020. 

Hiring those additional workers could cost more than $200 million a year, the Los Angeles Daily News reported on Feb. 6, suggesting that in the absence of new revenue or cuts, such an expense would double the city’s projected annual deficit.

“This is a goal,” Greuel said. “If you don’t try and reach a goal, you will never get there. And for me, public safety is No. 1.”

Speaking on the campaign trail, Greuel has been cautious — her supporters call it savvy — in what policy positions she’s willing to stake out, often offering up generalities or declaring that more research is needed.

During a televised debate in late January, Greuel refused to give a yes or no answer to moderator Conan Nolan of KNBC when he asked whether Los Angeles International Airport should be allowed to move one of its runways, a plan opposed by some of the airport’s neighbors. At a debate at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills a few weeks earlier, Greuel gave a similarly noncommittal answer when asked which route the Purple Line subway — planned to run through Century City and Beverly Hills — should take.

Greuel is not the only candidate hedging answers in this race, of course. According to the Los Angeles Times, Greuel and Garcetti have made strong commitments in closed-door meetings to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents a large chunk of the civilian employees at City Hall. At the same time, both these candidates have publicly promised to reform the pensions of city workers as a centerpiece of their stump speeches, a move that likely would mean a reduction in benefits for the city’s unionized workers.

Greuel denied altering her message to fit the audience. 

“There are no closed-door endorsements [or] meetings when you’re running for mayor of Los Angeles,” she said.

“I said the same thing to the Chamber [of Commerce] that I said to the SEIU,” she said. 

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA), said that in the speeches reportedly given at SEIU, both candidates appeared to be “pandering,” but Waldman said he is supporting Greuel anyway, at least in part because he feels that she’ll ensure the Valley gets fair representation in the mayor’s office. 

VICA’s political action committee also endorsed Greuel, as has the editorial board of the Valley-centric Los Angeles Daily News.

“This is a feeling among Valley voters, that when it comes down to it, she [Greuel] will take care of the Valley,” Waldman said. 

The Valley could take care of Greuel, too: Voters there make up 38 percent of the city’s population and have cast as much as 43 percent of the ballots in previous citywide elections. Although no candidate is likely to win an outright majority of the vote on March 5, a strong showing in the Valley could be enough to advance Greuel into a runoff in May — and one step closer to being the first mayor from the Valley since Sam Yorty.

But it’s highly unlikely that Greuel would ever pledge to look out only for narrow Valley interests. One promise Greuel has repeatedly made over the course of her campaign is that she’ll be “a mayor for all of L.A.”