Want to Be Mayor of L.A.? Fix the Potholes

Rivals for the top job hype their low- and high-tech approaches to roads | “This is the No. 1 issue that people complain about”

James Nash

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY 731; GREUEL: DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES; GARCETTI: VALERIE MACON/GETTY IMAGES; STICK: DORLING KINDERSLEY/GETTY IMAGES

Wendy Greuel calls herself the “Pothole Queen” because she once spent a weekend helping volunteers fill 747 of them. Eric Garcetti came up with an app that allows citizens to report potholes. Both want to be the next mayor of Los Angeles.

Voters in the U.S.’s second-largest city go to the polls on May 21 to choose a successor to term-limited Antonio Villaraigosa, who’s known for hobnobbing with Charlie Sheen, Eva Longoria, Kirk Douglas, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Alba, will.i.am, and ... the list goes on. The country came to know Villaraigosa as a leading Latino politician when he served as chairman of the Democratic National Convention last year.

Some Angelenos think the mayor should have been focused on the needs of his less illustrious constituents, and potholes have become the focus of their ire. “This is the No. 1 issue that people complain about in my council district and every council district in the city on a consistent basis,” says Councilmember Mitchell Englander, who’s neutral in the race. Or as a website called LAPotholes puts it: “Time to fight back. Let’s give City Hall a message: Fix our streets.”

Greuel, 51, the city controller, and Garcetti, 42, a councilmember, both Democrats, are trying to tap into that public anger. They agree on the big issues, such as eliminating the city business tax and reducing carbon emissions. So the contest has come down to who’s more passionate about laying asphalt.

Greuel, who before becoming controller was a councilmember representing the baby boomer suburbanites of the San Fernando Valley, has spurred the city to fill 164,345 holes over a seven-year period, says her spokesman, Dan Loeterman. “In many cases she put on a vest and gloves herself and joined crews as they filled the potholes,” he says.

Garcetti, who represents Hollywood and other neighborhoods that are home to much of the city’s young creative class, had his office develop a mobile app. Now constituents can upload a photo of a pothole and its location and send it to his staff to be forwarded to city road crews. The city of L.A. recently expanded the app, MyLA311, so residents all over the city can report nuisances. “When you do little things, it leads to big things,” boasts Garcetti’s spokesman, Yusef Robb.

Los Angeles residents complain that the craters destroy their axles, wear out their suspensions, and mangle the low-riding tire rims they love. The damage costs $746 a year, on average, per driver — more than in New York ($638) or Chicago ($333), according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Aggrieved Los Angeles car owners can file reimbursement claims to the city attorney’s office; last year it paid something out to 16 percent of drivers who filed them.

In potholes, Greuel and Garcetti have found the rare issue that unites a stratified city of Ferraris and Fords. As Councilmember Englander puts it, the problem “affects rich people and poor people.”

The bottom line The outcome of Los Angeles’s mayoral race may depend on who convinces voters they’re serious about patching potholes.

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