Candidate Closeup: Emanuel Pleitez

Listen to an audio story from Annenberg Radio News

imageEmanuel Pleitez is the Los Angeles mayoral race’s undisputed underdog:

“I’m stepping up to take the challenge on because we need that,” he said. “We need a new leader, someone with a fresh perspective, a unique perspective.”

Pleitez has rocketed onto debate stages and into TV ads since the new year after surprising analysts by raising enough money to receive matching public funds.

Just 30 years old and born in South LA, Pleitez is a breath of fresh air for longtime LA political reporter Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News.

“He has the immigrant son story of growing up in the city, and he’s put himself on the map,” Kaye said. “I think he’s become a visible player, and from my personal point of view, a welcome one.”

Pleitez is only seven years out of Stanford University, but his job history is extensive. He has worked for John Kerry, Mayor Villaraigosa, Goldman Sachs, President Obama’s transition team, a consulting firm and, most recently, data firm Spokeo. He even ran for Congress in 2009, but lost. In fact, his only victorious election has been to his senior class presidency in high school.

Pleitez calls this job history an advantage because it makes him an outsider to City Hall, independent from debts to unions and specific neighborhoods.

“I’m a mayor of all Angelenos, and that goes whether they’re documented or not. I am the mayor of all Angelenos that are in the city of LA, and I want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to work and contribute to LA,” Pleitez said.

Kevin James, a lawyer and radio host, is the race’s other “outsider.” But Jan Perry, Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti are City Hall veterans with big endorsements from politicians, unions and developers.

But Pleitez’s relative inexperience stokes his popularity for frustrated voters.

“The things that he said, it gelled. It came together,” said Brian Gaines, who saw Pleitez speak at a mayoral forum on Jan. 19. “Look at the others who have been there–what have you done over the last, collectively, 30 years?”

“The others who have been there” refers to Greuel, Garcetti and Perry’s combined three decades in City Hall. “That really stood out to me, being young and coming through the trenches. I want to see something new.”


Consistently, Pleitez’s number-one issue is one ravaging City Hall: Pension reform.

LA’s pension obligations will increase to $3 billion a year by 2017, according to former mayor Richard Riordan. That’s about 50 percent of the city’s annual budget. Pleitez wants to increase the retirement age and move toward a 401-k plan for current city employees.

“That’s why every single year they’re having to cut another few hundred million dollars. If we reform the pension system, we wouldn’t have to make those cuts,” Pleitez said.

His number-two issue is education. Pleitez has been speaking ardently at LA’s community colleges and is hosting a “South LA Backyard Hackathon” next weekend. Its mission: “Bring Silicon Alley to South LA.”

“If we actually invest in education and training, not just for young people, but older folks as well, then we’re going to be able to move our workforce into a higher skill level to get the jobs that are actually available,” Pleitez said.

Based on city election trends in LA, though, this race doesn’t look good for Pleitez: He has a fraction of the frontrunners’ money and lacks endorsements from major city players like unions and councilmembers.

But he does have momentum. Pleitez said this week that his team has knocked on 40,000 doors and made 150,000 phone calls since Jan. 1.

That effort might be sufficient. According to California Common Cause, LA has notoriously low voter turnout in local elections: Sometimes just 7 percent of the population votes, and the city’s maximum is about 35 percent.

However, Ron Kaye cannot envision Pleitez qualifying for the runoff election in May. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote on March 5, the top two candidates advance to another ballot on May 21.

“I do not have a scenario where this is going to be an election that changes the face of LA politics,” Kaye said. Pleitez is young, however. “He’s put himself on the map, nobody had heard about him a few months ago. I think he clearly has signaled that he intends to be around.”

Pleitez will be around, knocking on every door, at least until March 5.

Molly Gray contributed to this report. Photos by Molly Gray.

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