When James got the chance to question an opponent at a debate Wednesday night, he turned to Garcetti and asked if he saw any conflict of interest in Greuel's receipt of campaign support from a union for workers at the Department of Water and Power, an agency she monitors as city controller.
"When we see outside interests come in and try to buy elections, it is something for all of us to give pause and consider," Garcetti responded. For good measure, the city councilman added: "If people spend a lot of money on you in an election, they aren't doing it just because they love you. They want something from you."
The exchange exposed the downside of what was otherwise welcome news this week for Greuel: The powerful union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, was joining forces with Hollywood studio executives to promote her campaign.
The union's business manager, Brian D'Arcy, has a long track record of plowing large sums of money into fierce attack ads against opponents of its favored candidates in city elections.
In the mayoral race, the union's Working Californians committee hopes to play a more forceful role than usual, thanks to money pledged by entertainment industry donors whom Greuel cultivated when she was a government relations executive at DreamWorks.
But with the union's support comes significant risk for Greuel.
"I think it will be very beneficial to her, but she'll continually be on the defensive about whether she'll buckle to their demands for higher wages and better benefits," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn.
It's an especially potent issue in the San Fernando Valley, where hot weather — and the extra air conditioning and yard watering that goes with it — makes DWP rate hikes more irksome to many residents, Close said. The union represents more than 8,600 DWP employees.
The DWP's history of high salaries heightens the awkwardness of carrying the union's support. The average maximum salary for a cable splicer, for instance, is 43% higher than average maximum salaries paid at 15 other utilities, according to an analysis provided to the DWP by a private consulting firm.
Greuel's endorsements by a growing roster of public employee unions — most recently the Los Angeles Police Protective League — are making it easier for opponents to argue that she would grant labor demands for wage hikes and health and pension benefits that they see as too generous. James, the lone Republican in the race, and City Councilwoman Jan Perry portray Greuel as a union tool.
"Wendy Greuel is a special project of the IBEW," said Eric Hacopian, chief strategist for Perry's mayoral campaign. "And the purpose of that project is essentially to buy the mayor's office in the city of Los Angeles."
With the city facing projected budget shortfalls totaling more than $1.1 billion over the next four years, Greuel is trying to run as a fiscal conservative. Her audits, she says, have found $160 million in potential savings from rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.
At the Sherman Oaks debate, sponsored by the homeowners association, Greuel said she was "proud of what I have done as the city controller and the people I have gone after, including, yes, the DWP."
"I will continue to be an independent watchdog," she said.
Garcetti then sprang a surprise on her, asking Greuel to sign a pledge that he said would reduce the influence of "independent expenditures and 'super PACs,'" such as the DWP union's. Mirroring a pledge in the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, it would require a mayoral candidate to donate half of whatever outsiders spend on the campaign's behalf to charity.
"Would you make that pledge with me?" Garcetti asked Greuel.
Greuel said she had "no idea how much anyone is going to spend in this race" but would be "more than happy" to study the idea. "I appreciate the somewhat-of-a-gimmick that you have suggested tonight," she said, "but I think the public wants to make sure we are talking about the issues that are important to our communities and to our neighborhoods."
On Thursday, Greuel campaign strategist John Shallman said she would "absolutely not" sign the pledge. "It's the 'Eric Garcetti is afraid of Wendy Greuel' pledge," he scoffed.
IBEW Local 18's involvement in city elections has at times put its causes at risk. Three years ago, it spent $245,000 on behalf of council candidate Chris Essel, sending mailers supporting her and attacking her opponent, then-Assemblyman Paul Krekorian. Essel lost after her opponent portrayed her as being in the pocket of the DWP union.
Times staff writers Kate Linthicum and David Zahniser contributed to this report.