The Long Run

Former first deputy mayor Austin Beutner speaks to Gabriel Kahn about his mayoral candidacy

Last month, Austin Beutner quit his job as first deputy mayor to embark on what some regard as a quixotic bid for city hall. Though the election is two years away, the former Wall Street executive has already begun assembling a campaign staff, including people he brought with him from his time working with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He also recently picked up a high-profile endorsement from former mayor Richard Riordan. Beutner faces a crowded field made up mostly of longtime Los Angeles pols, but he has deep pockets and a tight connection with some of the city’s business elite. Beutner spoke to Gabriel Kahn recently about his candidacy.

You spent 15 months working for a mayor who is widely regarded as being ineffectual and distant. How do you plan to distinguish yourself from him and his administration in a race?
What I worked on with the mayor is changing the way the city approached business, employers, and job creation in Los Angeles. I’m proud of it. The mayor supported it and worked closely on it. He’s spoken for the record about how we’ve made a difference and how we do things differently. He and I are different. I have a lot of regard for him as a person. But I’ll do things differently.

How much do you think this campaign is going to cost?
I have no idea. I really don’t. Campaigns are expensive, and we plan to do it right.

Are you prepared to spend your own money?
Well, I definitely plan to be out there raising money in different communities. Getting third-party support is a pretty good indicator of whether or not people think you can do the job of mayor. And if they won’t support you, it’s a pretty good indication that you should be doing something else.

But are you prepared to invest in your campaign?
I’m making the most important investment right now by investing my time. Whether I end up using my own money or not, that’s something we’ll have to decide down the road.

What’s the first thing you would do as mayor?
Make Los Angeles a city that works. That means that Angelenos who want good paying jobs have to be able to find them, and the city needs to do a better job of serving its constituents. The city itself has to work better. That’s the foundation. If there’s no economic foundation, the other pieces you can’t pay for—they don’t sustain themselves. I grew up in Michigan. I remember Detroit as a vibrant city of 2 million. Today it’s a city of 700,000 that’s been rotted to the core because the middle-class jobs left. Los Angeles has an unemployment rate of 13 percent, but if you count the people who have stopped looking for work or are only working part-time, I think the number is closer to 20 percent. If we don’t put people back to work, pretty soon the other pieces aren’t going to matter.

You’re a 50-something white male in a city that is increasingly ethnically diverse. Do you think that creates a handicap? Or are we getting beyond the era of racial politics?
I think I’ve shown in the last year the importance of creating jobs in every community in Los Angeles. I take skills learned in the private sector and skills learned in the public sector and make that work for Angelenos. I don’t think this race is going to be about identity politics; I think this race is going to be about who is best equipped to deliver on that promise. All will make the promise.

What’s the most important thing you learned during your 15 months in city government?
Los Angeles is a complicated place. Listen. Learn from the constituents, learn from the communities what matters. We can make a difference, we can change the culture of city hall. They are called public servants because they are supposed to serve the public. We started a program in my office to actually make phone calls. Everyone in my office reached out to five employers in the city each week—large, small, South L.A., East L.A., the Valley, San Pedro—to understand what their needs are and to deliver city services to support  them. That’s what’s going to create jobs and change the tide, and I think that same principle applies to everything the city does. To exist in the hermetically sealed building of City Hall, that’s not where city government really belongs. City services belong out in the neighborhoods among the constituents.

Do you think you can get along with the entrenched players in this city, such as the city council? Unions?
I think we get along fine. I think we have a common agenda. Certainly, in the past year, I’ve visited almost every council district together with the council representative. Collaboratively, we passed the business-tax holiday. Collaboratively, we worked together to pass the local-preference ordinance. And where there is a common agenda, of course we’re going to work together. But I think it’s the mayor’s job to set that agenda and to provide, with the bully pulpit that the mayor has, a way to hold the city accountable. 

For more on Austin Beutner, read “The Unpolitician,” our May profile.