What does L.A.'s mayor do?
In the world of metropolitan mayors, there are so-called “weak” mayors and “strong” mayors. Those terms typically describe where they fall on a spectrum of strength, ranging from figurehead to overlord.
L.A.’s mayor doesn’t have the far-reaching powers of the two other biggest cities in the U.S. — and that’s by design. When the city charter was drawn up nearly 100 years ago, it was intentionally written to keep the mayor from setting up the type of political machines New York and Chicago are known for.
Still, serving as L.A.'s mayor is far from ceremonial. Instead, think of the mayor as a CEO: they can appoint commissioners and boot city officials.
They also handle the money; mayors must propose a budget (which must be approved by the City Council) and report to the council every year on how that money is spent.
The 15-member council is basically Los Angeles’ legislature. The mayor has veto power over new laws and line items in the budget, although the council can override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote.
The mayor does not have authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Day-to-day power belongs to the LAUSD Board of Education, which is elected by voters. This is one major way in which the job differs from that of New York’s mayor, who has had control over that city's public school system since 2002, and Chicago’s mayor who, for better or worse, has wielded complete power since 1995. L.A. is the largest city in the country in which the mayor has no direct control over the education system.
Some other things the mayor does have control over:
- Who leads the L.A. Police Department – The mayor appoints the police chief (but not the L.A. Sheriff, who is elected)
- Who leads the L.A. Fire Department – The mayor appoints the fire chief.
- Declaring a local emergency or disaster – Once such a declaration is made, the mayor automatically becomes the Director of the Emergency Operations Organization, giving it the authority to requisition supplies and city personnel and to issue rules.
As the head of the second-largest city in the country, L.A.’s mayor has the ability to lead on social issues at the heart of national conversations. Their power over the budget allows them to carve out funding to pilot new programs. Case-in-point: The city’s universal basic income program. In 2021, Los Angeles became the largest city to pilot such a program after Mayor Eric Garcetti carved out $24 million dollars to give some low-income families a $1,000 monthly stipend.
If any one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the June primary, they will win the office outright. Otherwise, the two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the November runoff.
Like U.S. presidents, L.A. mayors serve a four-year term and are limited to two terms. Garcetti, first elected in 2013, is termed out and is awaiting confirmation of his appointment as U.S. ambassador to India.
There are 12 mayoral candidates on the June 7 ballot, but one, Joe Buscaino, has dropped out of the race. The candidates, in alphabetical order, are:
- Karen Bass
Joe Buscaino(dropped out of race on May 12)
- Rick J. Caruso
- Kevin De León
- Mike Feuer
- Craig E. Greiwe
- Alex Gruenenfelder Smith
- John "Jsamuel" Jackson
- Andrew Kim
- Mel Wilson
- Ramit Varma
- Gina Viola
Note: We will have more on these candidates, including a quiz to match your point of view on key issues with the candidates, in the coming days.
Jump down to watch our hourlong one-on-one conversations with Bass, Buscaino, De León, Feuer and Viola.
You might recognize the mayor's work from…
The mayor’s power is particularly evident during a state of emergency. The pandemic offers several examples of Garcetti wielding power given to him by the Municipal Code to implement policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- On March 4, 2020, he declared a local emergency, clearing the way for him to take unilateral action in a number of ways.
- On March 15, 2020, he ordered the closure of several businesses, including nightclubs and bars.
- On the same day, Garcetti imposed a ban on evicting tenants.
It’s hard to remember pre-pandemic times, but for one example, let’s look back on Garcetti’s push to increase the minimum wage above what the state requires:
In 2015, he signed a measure to begin a phased increase of the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 for businesses with more than 25 employees. At the time, California’s minimum wage was $9 an hour. The proposal, backed by activists, got a 13-1 favorable vote from the City Council. Garcetti then signed it into law. Now the $15 an hour rate is set to jump to just over $16 on July 1.
What’s on the agenda for the next term?
L.A.’s next mayor will inherit a city facing historical challenges. Among them:
A homelessness crisis: We don't yet have the results of the 2022 homeless count, and we missed the 2021 count because of the pandemic. The 2020 count found at least 41,290 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Several candidates, including Mike Feuer, Rick Caruso, Karen Bass, and Joe Busciano, have vowed to immediately declare a state of emergency regarding homelessness, which would give them broad powers to take action.
Rising crime rates: There were 397 homicides in Los Angeles in 2021 — a 50% increase from 2019. Robberies involving firearms were up 57% from 2020 and 60% from 2019. However, keep in mind that the crime rate remains significantly lower than the historic highs of the 1990s.
L.A. Police Department funding: Mayor Garcetti recently called for an 8.5% increase in the department’s budget, but the “defund the police” movement and other critics question whether an increase is justified amid so many other pressing issues.
Exiting the pandemic state of emergency: The next mayor will have to decide when to end the state of emergency while considering how that move will affect certain policies. For example, landlords cannot evict tenants negatively impacted by COVID-19 over unpaid rent until the city declares an end to the local emergency period. Once that happens, tenants will have 12 months to repay their back rent, or until August 1, 2023, whichever date comes first.
The list goes on: The climate emergency, Vision Zero (the effort to end all traffic deaths), and the affordable housing crisis are also top of mind for many Angelenos.
What if voting for a candidate was like using one those matchmaking apps where you answer a bunch of questions and then you get matched with someone who shares your interests and values? Well, it can be!
Look out for our Meet Your Mayor quiz, which should be ready for you in the coming days. We sent the candidates a list of more than 30 questions about the issues that matter most to Angelenos. Our quiz asks you the same questions so that we can "match" you with the candidate who's closest to you on key issues that Angelenos care about.
We've already heard back from (in alphabetical order): Karen Bass, Rick Caruso, Kevin De Leon, Mike Feuer, Craig Greiwe, Alex Gruenenfelder Smith and Gina Viola. The campaigns of Joe Buscaino and Mel Wilson have said they plan to participate.
Meet the candidates
To help get you ballot-ready, Austin Cross sat down with five of the candidates for L.A. mayor for a series of one-on-one interviews — and we asked them your top questions.
Kevin De León
May 4 (dropped out of race on May 12)
CANCELLED: Rick Caruso
Note: Caruso had initially agreed to appear on this date before withdrawing two days prior to the scheduled time, citing a conflict.