Democratic Councilman Eric Garcetti builds growing lead as LA picks new mayor

This combo shows a Feb. 20, 2013 file photo of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti speaking to media in Los Angeles, left, and undated image provided by the Wendy Greuel Campaign of mayoral candidate Greuel meeting with voters.

This combo shows a Feb. 20, 2013 file photo of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti speaking to media in Los Angeles, left, and undated image provided by the Wendy Greuel Campaign of mayoral candidate Greuel meeting with voters.  (AP)

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who jammed with pop star Moby and fashioned himself as a voice for a new generation of city leaders, has opened a growing lead in the race for Los Angeles mayor with the pool of uncounted ballots steadily shrinking.

Garcetti, 42, who made a mark helping resuscitate neighborhoods from the gritty edge of downtown to Hollywood, held a 53 percent to 46 percent margin over city Controller Wendy Greuel, with about 60 percent of the precincts reporting and tens of thousands of mail-in ballots tallied. Both are Democrats.

Garcetti was upbeat in a speech to cheering supporters in Hollywood.

"We have sent a message tonight, and that message is that Los Angeles is ready to put the recession in the rear view mirror and become the city of opportunity that I grew up in once again," he said.

Greuel sounded guarded as votes were being counted, telling supporters that "no one said it was going to be easy or quick.

"When you're playing in the championship of LA politics, sometimes the game goes into overtime," she said.

The winner will replace two-term Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who exits July 1.

Garcetti shares a Latino heritage with the outgoing mayor -- he has Italian and Mexican roots from his father -- but he has a far different resume than Villaraigosa, the product of a broken home from the tough streets east of downtown.

Garcetti is the son of a former district attorney who grew up in the San Fernando Valley's tony Encino enclave, attended Columbia University and enjoys playing jazz piano.

Despite record spending, turnout at polls appeared sluggish after a campaign that centered on the city's ailing economy and the influence of municipal unions. Only one of four voters in the nation's second-most populous city were projected to cast a ballot, possibly a historic low in a city known to shrug at local politics.

Garcetti, who could become the city's first elected Jewish mayor, and Greuel, 51, who could become the first woman to hold the job, occupy so much of the same policy turf they've been dubbed "Greucetti."

A steady stream of negative advertising from the campaigns and outside groups has helped obscure the candidates' promises about free-flowing traffic, new jobs and better schools in coming years.

Voters also were judging three competing ballot proposals to manage the city's proliferation of pot shops, forcing residents to weigh the needs of the sick against complaints about crime around the dispensaries.

While some cities successfully managed pot collectives, Los Angeles fumbled and dispensaries sprouted across the city. Proposition D would cap the number at 135 -- the total that opened prior to 2007 -- and raise taxes slightly; Proposition E would cap the number at the same level but raise no new taxes; Proposition F wouldn't limit the number of pot shops but would put stringent controls such as audits and background checks on employees while also raising taxes.

The proposition with the most votes wins -- if it collects a majority. If none of the measures receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the issue could bounce back to the City Council.

Greuel and Garcetti emerged from a March primary in which no candidate secured the majority needed to win outright, leading to Tuesday's runoff. Only about two in 10 voters went to the polls in that race.

The mayoral contest has seen record spending -- over $30 million overall -- and the outcome was expected to swing on appeal with key voting groups, including blacks and Latinos and turnout in the Valley, South Los Angeles and other battleground neighborhoods.

On Monday, Greuel sent off a final round of recorded endorsements from former President Bill Clinton, in whose administration she once worked, while Garcetti was on campaign stops arguing a simple point to mostly indifferent residents: The election matters.

While Garcetti could become the first Jewish man elected mayor, he would not be the first Jew to hold the job. Bernard Cohn was mayor briefly in 1878, after being appointed to fill a vacancy.

Voter Angela Beltran, a nonprofit research analyst, said her choice was not a gender issue.

"It was more a matter of who has done a lot of the work in the community and in the city," she said. "I've just seen Eric Garcetti really flourish and grow here in Los Angeles."

The lack of public interest ran counter to what's at stake. A key issue has been the city's shaky $7.7 billion budget and the prospect of living with less. Spending is projected to outpace revenue for years, and rising pension and retiree health care bills threaten money that could otherwise go to libraries, tree-trimming and street repairs. Villaraigosa urged his successor to try to block a 5.5 percent pay increase for civilian employees.

With so much common ground on policy, the race became a duel over character issues as well as a referendum on who was closer to politically powerful municipal unions often criticized for landing generous raises and benefits.

Garcetti's commercials labeled Greuel "DWP's mayor," a reference to the Department of Water and Power, whose workers financed ads to help install her at City Hall.

Greuel's attack ads hit Garcetti for a fundraiser organized by a developer who she says once served prison time for fraud.