Two City Hall veterans took command Tuesday in the contest to replace outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, setting up a likely runoff to determine who will lead a city troubled by double-digit unemployment and a looming budget gap.
"The creativity and the genius that is Los Angeles, we will bring back. And that's what I'm going to do as the next mayor of Los Angeles," promised city Councilman Eric Garcetti, 42, a Democrat who led the field with 34 percent of the vote.
With mail-in ballots and about 40 percent of precincts reporting, no candidate was in position to clear the majority needed to win outright. The top two finishers will go to a May 21 runoff, and Garcetti was followed closely by city Controller Wendy Greuel, 51, another Democrat who notched 29 percent of the vote.
Democratic Councilwoman Jan Perry was parked in third place, with 17 percent.
The election capped a lackluster primary campaign that was snubbed by most of the city's 1.8 million voters. Turnout was scant.
The next mayor of the nation's second largest city inherits a raft of problems: Crime is relatively low but City Hall is nearly broke, the airport is an embarrassment, freeways remain clogged and potholes, cracked sidewalks and untended trees infest many neighborhoods. Rising pension and health care costs for workers threaten dollars needed for libraries, street repairs and other services.
"The city's ability to provide services that improve the quality of life of city residents has diminished," city Administrative Officer Miguel Santana wrote in a report last month.
The five leading candidates in the nonpartisan contest made last-minute appeals during stops around the city, while unionized workers and other campaign volunteers tried to get voters to shake off indifference and go to the polls.
"I need you to vote, and then go encourage your friends and family to vote, too," Greuel told supporters in an email Tuesday. She hopes to become the city's first woman mayor.
The sluggish turnout presented a possible opening for Perry, 57, or former prosecutor Kevin James, 49, a Republican, to slip into the two-person runoff. But James also lagged off the pace in the heavily Democratic city, with 14 percent of the vote, according to preliminary returns.
Los Angeles County Democratic Chair Eric Bauman attributed the light turnout to voter fatigue after the 2012 presidential race, along with a campaign that failed to produce a star candidate.
Angelenos are known to give local politics a collective shrug, and turnout failed to reach 30 percent in Villaraigosa's hotly contested primary in 2005, when he was trying to become the first Hispanic mayor in more than a century. He was re-elected in 2009 with a meager 152,000 votes, in a city of nearly 4 million people.
"I honestly think voters are worn out," Bauman said. "There isn't anything that is driving up turnout."
The city appears headed for another first at City Hall. Greuel would become the first woman mayor, and Garcetti could become the first Jew elected to the post (but not the first to hold it in a temporary capacity). The two candidates also have roots in the city's San Fernando Valley.
The leading candidates dueled mostly over pocketbook issues and City Hall insider politics — a looming deficit, 10.2 percent unemployment, the grip of municipal unions.
"The campaign itself hasn't really gotten people's blood going," said longtime Democratic strategist Garry South. "It's been small-bore stuff for the most part, and the average voter is saying, 'What's this got to do with me?'"
The Los Angeles mayor presides over a budget that exceeds $7 billion, but it is a comparatively weak office hemmed in by a powerful City Council. Unlike other big cities such as New York, the Los Angeles mayor cannot directly appoint the head of schools or police.
Voters also were picking a city attorney, city controller and about half the 15 members of the City Council, and deciding whether to increase the city's sales tax a half-cent to 9.5 percent.
Though Garcetti often plays up his Hispanic roots, he has a far different history than the charismatic Villaraigosa, who grew up on the rough streets east of downtown and once sported a "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo. Garcetti is the son of a former district attorney, an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar from the Valley's tony Encino enclave.
"Our work isn't over" Garcetti said in a fundraising appeal sent out after the polls closed. "We need to keep our foot on the gas."