Do you know who your mayor is?
As a newspaper reader, you are more informed than the average voter. However, in most Southern California cities and suburbs, the mayor is essentially a ceremonial role—not directly elected by voters but as a member of the local City Council elected by their peers. Even those who are directly elected usually share power with a designated city manager who undertakes the recruitment and firing of department heads (including the police chief) and prepares the budget. So it’s no wonder that most Southern California voters don’t know who is the mayor of their city.
That’s why the mayor of Los Angeles seems so big. As chief executive officer of the region’s largest metropolis, the person elected to the post is usually far better known than all the other mayors combined. The LA mayor is seen as the preeminent regional leader, whether holding televised pandemic press conferences or leading a sports championship parade.
Since the mayor of LA can only serve for two four-year terms, the seat is open, so we’re in the middle of a fierce battle that’s dominating the airwaves and the media. A dozen candidates are jockeying for office. If you live outside LA, you may not know your mayor, but you’ve probably seen a Facebook ad or advert for billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who has so far spent $24 million to get the message across that he’s the man for a “better and better Loss.” safer. Angeles.” At this point, his only serious rival is Congressman Karen Bass, one of the politicians Joe Biden is considering as vice president. He combined most of the Democratic Party’s support in a city where 58% of registered voters are Democrats.
Caruso is also a Democrat – at least since January 24 this year, just before he announced his candidacy. The post was actually supposed to be non-partisan, but since Republicans made up only 13% of the electorate, it was a wise move, even at the last moment.
So, what kind of power does the LA mayor have? If you listen to Caruso ads everywhere, a lot. He vowed “to end street homelessness, make our communities safer and clean up corruption.”
That’s a tall order. The mayor of LA has no mayoral influence in cities like New York and Chicago or even Boston, Seattle or San Francisco. That’s by design. The reformers who wrote the 1924 LA City Charter sought to prevent corruption by distributing power to appointed commissions made up of honorable citizens instead of dirty politicians. It was largely unsuccessful—instead the City Council took most of the power, becoming the virtual mayor of their district. In fact, the LA mayor didn’t even officially become “chief executive” until a frustrated Mayor Richard Riordan convinced voters to change the Charter in 1999.
You can change the words, but the board still has influence. The LA mayor was hardly taken seriously by the bureaucracy before candidate Eric Garcetti announced in 2013 if elected he would fire every department head and have them reapply for their jobs. Even now, the council (members can serve for 12 years) and the workforce (with the protection of trade unions and civil servants) know they can wait longer than an elected mayor. A billionaire business executive who vows to “fix LA” could easily be stymied by a permanent government.
So does it matter who the mayor of LA is? Yes. A skilled and patient leader can make a difference. Courage is key — LA needs fixing. But change cannot be forced alone. To succeed, whoever the electorate needs to build an effective team, form a strong coalition, and work with the City Council to get things done.
Rick Cole served as deputy mayor for Budget and Innovation for the city of LA, 2013-2015. He was previously the mayor of Pasadena and has been city manager in Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. He invites feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.