Los Angeles is the nation's second largest city, but in political terms it's more like a kindergarten sandbox than a grown-up municipality.
Its mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, was seen as a rising political star with national potential when he was elected eight years ago.
However, a series of tabloid-worthy exploits, unresolved budgetary crises and other negative factors appear to have short-circuited his political career.
A campaign is under way to choose Villaraigosa's successor, but the aspirants exhibit no vision for the troubled city and are busily trashing each other in hopes of surviving the first round of voting on March 5 and making it into the runoff.
The City Council has placed a half-cent sales tax hike on the same ballot, and the city's administrative officer warns that if it doesn't pass, mass layoffs, including hundreds of cops, may be the city's only option to close a $200-plus million budget deficit.
But none of the candidates for mayor endorses the tax hike – while most back a cut in the city's business tax that would widen the deficit – and most of the council candidates are running away from it as well. Villaraigosa finally endorsed the new tax after weeks of indecision, but only tepidly.
The two leading candidates for mayor, the ones most likely to make it into the May runoff, appear to be city Controller Wendy Greuel and City Councilman Eric Garcetti.
Neither supports the sales tax hike, but neither offers any reasonable alternative to the severe layoffs and other spending cuts that city Administrative Officer Miguel Santana warned last week would be required if it doesn't pass.
Santana, in a 48-page report to the City Council, said a 500-officer cutback and other reductions "are the only options left" to close the deficit.
Greuel did offer a budget plan of sorts, backing the elimination of the $400 million business tax and pledging a big Police Department expansion, but has refused to say how the new spending would be financed. She's drawn ridicule from Garcetti and other mayoral candidates, but they haven't offered any alternatives.
The collective image of those running for mayor, especially Garcetti and Greuel, is one of political cowardice – refusing to endorse new taxes, calling for a tax cut, pandering to voters on taxes and unions on layoffs, and ducking questions on how the city's immense budget deficit should be handled.
In other words, they want to be mayor of Los Angeles but don't want the responsibilities that go along with the title – not unlike the man they hope to succeed, one might say.
Los Angeles is a deeply troubled city, with a moribund economy, rising ethnic tensions and deep fiscal difficulties. It needs bold and courageous political leadership, but hasn't had it and won't be getting it anytime soon.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated from print and online versions to correct the first name of Eric Garcetti. Updated at 7:48 a.m. Feb. 15, 2013.