Austin Beutner toughs up
Profile: Austin Beutner, a novice to politics but a veteran of many wars in private and public sectors alike, is tougher than you may know, and ready for anything in this upcoming Mayor's race.
I have to confess that even after ten minutes, he fairly shocked me. It was more like a boxing match than an interview. Not that we argued, but he was very feisty, very...tough, in a word.
I don't expect this in an Ivy League multimillionaire. I even say, very early on, "You're way tougher than I imagined."
"Well...yeah," he says.
He gets feisty right away, over his cheese plate and my macchiato at The Farm, because I ask him a question about his investor days, and I thought it was an innocent enough one: "Did you have a financial guru, and who was it?" He states a couple of names (really answering the way you'd expect of someone who is the school's best boy, first mentioning his dad, arriving on the boat, &c.) but then he quickly reminds me that he had all this civic and government work under his belt too, including work creating jobs in post-Soviet Russia for the Clinton administration.
So I ditch my notes and ask him, very early:
"Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, running for Mayor? This is going to be a really bruising campaign. Consultants are already trying this and that out on you."
Yeah, he shrugs. No problem.
"No, I see you as this polite guy. But two weeks before the election, they're going to be hitting you with ads, tv ads..."
He insists, "Yeah, doesn't bother me." He's just shrugging. "They want to do that, they can, nothing there. Won't matter." He was just unfazed at the prospect of getting roughed up.
And this is the bottom line opinion I form about Austin Beutner, candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles in 2013: he seems half like the most confident guy in LA--just tremendous self-confidence--and half like the most politically naive guy in LA. And probably, in truth, he's very much of both, but a notoriously quick study.
Beutner's top topic, predictably, is jobs for LA. He says the real unemployment rate is likely between 18-20%. "That's a five-alarm fire," he says.
Potential civil disturbance level?
"Sure," he says. "Look what's happening around the world. We're coming up on the twentieth anniversary of the riot. We have to make sure it won't happen again."
It's natural to go from "tough guy" talk to talk about his consultant in the race, Ace Smith--a tough guy too. I ask him how frequently they talked--once a week?
"Oh, far more frequently."
Once a day?
"That's more like it."
Sure, he knows former Mayor Richard Riordan. He brings up Riordan's endorsement gladly. But don't try to identify him as a Riordan protege.
So, then, when the former Mayor went to the Wall Street Journal to say that we were on the verge of bankruptcy--did that help the City or hurt it?
"I'm sure, he was trying to help," he insists. "Have you seen the City budget, even this one they passed? It's a mess. They say it's balanced. It's not balanced. Do you know what a 'clearance rate' is?'
Beutner goes on to explain how the Police Department is using "bankable hours" that are paid out in subsequent years to balance the present budget. It annoys him.
He defends the AEG/Farmer's Field potential deal, and not just on the grounds that the City needs a football team. He tells me that a stadium with a roof will enable an NCAA Final Four to come to LA. "Those people come for a whole week, and they spend like drunken sailors," he says.
We talk a lot about financial stuff in the City, and about regional projects, transit hub stuff, transpo stuff in general. Beutner remains just as intense, no matter the topic. He is simply not a smarmy politician like Riordan, that's for sure. His language is the all-action, assertive banker's--"We've got all this transpo money, sooner or later it'll get in the ground." His conversation style is a lot like an investment banker's--someone in a hurry to prove his mettle--someone who has to outflank a prospective client on their own business--someone who has to know everything you know and a little more on top of that.
So I ask something that I try to ask a lot of civic figures. "Well, would simply borrowing a lot of money be so bad?"
Beutner says, "Yeah, it would be. We don't want to do that."
I say, "Well, New York borrowed its way out of its catastrophic debt in the '70's."
"No they didn't," he snaps back.
"They didn't? Sure they did," I say. "They borrowed from labor pension funds."
"No," he says. "Basically, they restructured their tax base."
We'll have to leave that one for the historians.
About halfway through the interview, I note to him that he doesn't smile a lot.
"Two of our last three Mayors have had big smiles," I say. "The third didn't, and lost an incumbent race."
He breaks a small smile himself and says, "Well, I do like to laugh." Later he explains that "leading LA is serious stuff."
He doesn't like to talk about the Mayor much. "You'll have to ask him," he'll say, when I ask him how the Mayor might see something. But he will acknowledge that the Mayor may have a broader role in some civic disputes than Villaraigosa was willing to take on--for instance in the Writer's strike.
"Look, the Mayor's office is the biggest bully pulpit in the region. The Mayor doesn't have to take a side, but he does have to acknowledge that this is bad for the City and work to solve something like that. It was devastating [to Hollywood]."
Should he get involved in, then, say, the sale of the Los Angeles Times?
"Yeah. Here's this civic organ, the whole City has a stake in it..."
I interrupt and ask him about Sam Zell.
"He's a corporate raider..."
I start to laugh, noting Austin Beutner is calling someone a corporate raider.
"...who left behind a bankrupt business," he adds.
To me, that's audacious--doesn't he have to look to this publication for even-handed treatment?--so I read it back to him.
"You really want to say that?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "Look, I would call him up and tell him that." As far as political identity, he doesn't mince words about his independence either.
We talk a little about the CRA. I ask him something I've been trying to prove to editors since last year (and that they seem to have a hard time getting their arms around): that at some time in the Villaraigosa administration, the CRA transformed from a property redevelopment agency to a job creation agency.
He agrees. "It's always going to be a mix, you have to have effort in both, and sometime you need one more than the other."
So when did it start? When Essel was appointed?
"Earlier," he says. "Cecilia?" I asked. "Probably in between them," he said. Well, in between them, there was nobody. It was Antonio's agency--and Beutner's.
I try him on culture. He's on all these boards, CalArts, the Broad, &c. I ask if he has a favorite sculptor. He names an obscure one in York, Maine--Sumner Winebaum. Beutner retains ties to New England from his Dartmouth days.
I also ask him about music. This is more solid ground for him. He played cello as a teenager, then was a bassist in a jazz band in college. Cello! Tough guys play cello--who knew?
I asked him if he goes to church. Whoops. "No, I'm Jewish," he says. "I was bar mitzvah'ed, but I don't go. Oh, my wife is Protestant." He doesn't indicate he's very much involved with religion in general--though he has just arrived from a speaking engagement at a Korean Christian church.
He tells me twice that he's an enormous sports fan, and reads the sports page first every morning. TJ Simers is his favorite local voice.
Even describing his bicycle accident and trauma ward experience, he was filled with panache and toughness: "When people die, it's not The Waltons," he says, of another patient in the trauma center who arrived when he did and did not make it.
I say "I don't see you as a guy who goes much down to the Elks' Club to tell them what's up with your new venture. But now--maybe you are doing stuff like that?"
He says he actually likes retail politics.
The next appointment--two more Korean businessmen--are waiting for him, and it's time to go. He tells me to be sure to spell his name right.