Dysfunctional L.A. election is a warning to state 

They held an election in California’s largest city last week, more or less.

Just 16 percent of Los Angeles’ registered voters cast ballots, and neither of the two leading candidates for mayor received even a third of that vote.

So City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, each claiming the allegiance of just 4 percent to 5 percent of the city’s voters (and only a couple of percentage points of its 3.8 million residents) will face each other in a May 21 runoff election for the very dubious honor of governing a city that’s flirting with insolvency.

That financial distress also worsened this week because the same voters who showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for any of the mayoral candidates also soundly rejected a sales-tax increase supported, albeit tepidly, by the outgoing mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Without the additional revenue of about $200 million a year, Villaraigosa and other city officials have warned, the city will be forced to slash services, including the ranks of police, to balance its books, leaving an already-dangerous city even less protected.

Perhaps sensing that it faced rejection and not wanting to alienate voters, neither Garcetti nor Greuel endorsed the tax hike that had been placed on the ballot by the City Council.

As Austin Beutner, a New York investment banker and former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, told Bloomberg News, Garcetti and Greuel “haven’t identified where new revenue would come from, they’ve sworn off new taxes and they’re not making any specific proposals regarding employee compensation and benefits.”

They and the other mayoral hopefuls, in fact, offered very few specifics about anything as they jousted before last week’s vote, spending their time and millions of campaign dollars on personal attacks.

Bottom line: Los Angeles has two politicians who want to be mayor but don’t want to raise taxes and don’t want to say how they would, if elected, deal with the city’s deep fiscal distress. Chances are they’ll spend the next two months doing what they’ve been doing all year: hurling personal invectives.

One of them will stumble across the finish line in another low-turnout election and enter office without a mandate or a vision.

It’s been said that California is a microcosm of what the United States may be in the decades ahead — a complex society that coalesces into mutually hostile cultural and political clans divided by geography, class, ethnicity and values, making it impossible to govern effectively.

If that’s true, Los Angeles may be California’s own microcosm, one of economic decay and civic dysfunction. And this week’s Los Angeles election, with a minuscule voter turnout and say-nothing, do-nothing candidates for mayor, also may be a peek into the state’s future.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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Dan Walters

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