Why this month’s selection of vice mayor will be more consequential than in years past

Now that the results of the presidential election are settled, local politicos are waiting to see if—or more likely when—Mayor Robert Garcia is catapulted into a new position with the incoming Biden Administration.

If Garcia were to depart for a presidential appointment, it would mark the first time in Long Beach’s history that the mayoral post becomes vacant. And as a result, the upcoming selection for the largely ceremonial position of “vice mayor” in the city will potentially become unusually competitive and closely-watched.

Garcia’s potential departure between now and the summer would spark a special election to replace him, and an “incumbent” vice mayor, who would run City Council meetings in Garcia’s absence, would likely have a natural advantage in a potential run for mayor.

The City Council will vote for vice mayor post on Dec. 15, after the new council—including two new members—is sworn into office. However, the jockeying for vice mayor has already been going on for months.

The clearest contender is Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents parts of North Long Beach. The ambitious 37-year-old, now in his second term, has already served aa biennial term as vice mayor once before, in 2017 and 2018.

Long Beach Councilman Rex Richardson, right, talks to the Century Villages at Cabrillo Director Rene Castro, while at the village in Long Beach Wednesday, August 7, 2019. Photo by Thomas Cordova.

Richardson said in an interview that he would welcome a second run at vice mayor, but said his focus has been and continues to be on the economic recovery of the city.

Some observers have also mentioned Councilwoman Suzie Price, who represents East Long Beach. Price said she would keep an open mind, but that it is “not her focus” right now.

Asked whom she would vote for, Price said it would be someone not looking for opportunities to “advance themselves at every turn.”

“It’s important to think about someone’s actual motive,” she said. “Are they coming from a place of collegiality?”

Price acknowledged that the position is “unusually coveted” this year because of the prospect that it could come with abnormal authority should the mayor leave.

While potential mayoral candidates have been careful not to publicly campaign for a seat that is not yet open, Richardson is believed to be preparing for a run, along with state Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell.

California State Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell visits the Long Beach Post newsroom in Long Beach Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Three council members will be voting for vice mayor for the first time when the selection happens in December. Suely Saro and Cindy Allen—both of whom were endorsed by Richardson and won their runoff elections in November—and Mary Zendejas, an ally of Richardson’s, will likely determine the winner.

“I want someone that’s able to step in when the mayor’s out and not available to help us through this economic and health crisis we’re living through,” Zendejas said of the qualities she’s looking for in a vice mayor.

The current vice mayor, Dee Andrews, was defeated by Saro in his reelection bid.

What is a vice mayor?

So how important is the vice mayor’s seat and what does one actually do?

According to the City Charter, the vice mayor is empowered with filling in for the mayor whenever they are absent or unable to run meetings or attend public functions. However, if there was to be an actual vacancy, then things could get a little more complicated, City Attorney Charlie Parkin said.

“The vice mayor would fill in for all of the mayor’s duties with the exception for the power to veto,” Parkin said.

The council member who becomes acting mayor would still retain his or her ability to vote. But the person could have newfound power to reorder the council agenda on a weekly basis, which could provide the opportunity to push items to the front of the agenda, an advantage on nights where meetings are expected to run late.

If the mayor leaves, a special election would be called within 60 days of any vacancy, and then the city and Los Angeles County election officials would have another 120 days to execute an election. After that vote is certified, the winner would be sworn in as mayor immediately. But, in the interim, the vice mayor could be acting mayor for months.

An incumbent advantage?

How advantageous being vice mayor could be for someone potentially angling to become full-time mayor is debatable, said Janet Musso, an associate professor of Public Policy and Political Science at USC.

“While the charter grants the mayor the power to veto City Council decisions, this power is not extended to the interim vice mayor,” Musso said. “Thus, the interim position appears primarily ceremonial, which offers little airtime during a pandemic, when ceremonies are few.”

Musso said what airtime a person in this position could garner would likely be marginally helpful as they could claim credit for policies enacted in the time they got to lead the city.

What could be a bigger factor is the ballot designation of a potential candidate running to replace Garcia. Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach and an elections expert, said that in a special election that is almost guaranteed to have low voter turnout, what a person puts next to their name could make a difference.

Levitt said that the laws governing ballot designations are fairly loose and pointed to examples of people who have been appointed to the State Assembly and Senate having run as “members of the legislature.”

“Whoever gets to put on the ballot that they’re acting mayor, vice mayor, whatever you want to call it, that would be an advantage,” Levitt said.

Levitt estimated that an off-cycle special election like the one that would be needed to replace Garcia likely would draw voter participation somewhere between 10% and 20%.

Prior to the 2016 election cycle, which saw about 40% voter turnout, the city had seen a decade of regularly scheduled elections garner about 20% participation. This led to a state law forcing the city to align its elections with statewide and county elections in an attempt to boost voter participation.

The last special election in the city held to replace now state Sen. Lena Gonzalez saw both the winner—Zendejas—and the runner up take in less than 1,000 votes each in a district that has over 20,000 registered voters.

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.