Before delivering an extended policy speech on Feb. 5 at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, Emanuel Pleitez walked around a carpentry classroom meeting students. Pleitez (pronounced play-TEZ), 30, is the youngest and least-known of the leading candidates running for Los Angeles mayor; he is also a former management consultant and analyst at Goldman Sachs, but as he chatted with students about where they were from, he offered up anecdotes about his own childhood, growing up poor in South and East Los Angeles.
When Pleitez met Jamie Gaitan, the candidate towered over the soft-spoken, 20-something student but with just a few questions, he teased out her story -- of abandonment at a young age and homelessness.
“My mom and my younger sister have a very similar story,” Pleitez told the audience gathered for the event minutes later. He paused, visibly affected. “We’re very lucky we were never homeless. But we had to move around 10 times before I was 10 years old.”
In campaign speeches, Pleitez emphasizes his upbringing in some of Los Angeles’s most underserved neighborhoods to make the case that he is best-suited among those hoping to lead the city.
“Put aside my resume and all of my experiences,” Pleitez said, during an interview in his campaign office in Boyle Heights later that afternoon. “It’s that feeling, where I know that there are kids right now that just decided today that they’re not going to school, or that someone just got shot and killed. I feel that urgency to really address it.”
The son of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants, Pleitez contends that he’s competing for all voters, particularly those who aren’t affiliated with any party.
“They’re disaffected with the party establishment,” he said, “and that is where my base of voters are – people who are tired of what is going on.”
Pleitez’s resume is impressive. A Stanford graduate, he served for a year as special assistant to then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, worked just under two years for Goldman Sachs, and for about 70 intense days starting in Nov. 2008, he was part of President Obama’s transition team. He also worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company for 19 months, and as the chief strategist for the online company Spokeo for about a year. Then, in December 2012, he put all of that aside to focus full-time on running for mayor.
Pleitez is considered by most pundits to be a long-shot candidate, nevertheless he has been able to raise enough money from donors across the country to qualify for public matching funds from the city. Pleitez has been invited to all but a few of the mayoral debates, where he focuses most of allotted time contrasting himself with the better-known and better-funded leading candidates – City Councilwoman Jan Perry, City Councilman Eric Garcetti, and City Controller Wendy Greuel.
“You’ve got three great options if you like the way we’re going,” Pleitez said. “If you don’t, I’m your option who actually understands the city, who actually understands the problems, and can deliver on solutions.”
Pleitez’s critiques and solutions often sound remarkably similar to those of another top candidate, former radio talk show host Kevin James, who like Pleitez has never held elected public office. Both support moving city workers to 401K-style pension plans and renegotiating those employees’s benefits. But while James, a Republican, has tied with Perry in some polls, Pleitez, a Democrat like Perry, Garcetti and Gruel, has never broken out of the single digits.
His challenge may be that Pleitez is hard to pin down: He can sound like a dyed-in-the wool progressive when talking about the need to invest in underserved neighborhoods, but he’s much more conservative when addressing fiscal policy.
While at Trade Tech Pleitez unveiled a proposal to offer city workers the choice of cashing out their pensions at current value. The city would need to borrow as much as $16 billion on the bond market to do so, he said, but the plan would make city budgets more predictable. However, pension buyouts, while used in the private sector, are virtually unheard of in the public sector.
“It’s a plan that would give city workers something today instead of nothing tomorrow, which is what could happen if we continue to slide towards bankruptcy,” Pleitez said on Feb. 5, standing in front of a model home outfitted with solar panels.
However, bond issues carry their own risks, as has been the case for some cities that have explored pension obligation bonds, among them Oakland and the now-bankrupt Stockton. Both borrowed money with the express purpose of making good on pension commitments and both lost millions of dollars as a result.
“If you can borrow the money at a low enough rate and invest it and generate a high enough return, then it works out,” Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, explained when asked about the viability of Pleitez’s plan. “It’s not uncommon, especially in the last few years, with borrowing costs so low.”
Pleitez’s campaign is powered by young staffers, about 20 of whom are living together in a rented house in South Los Angeles. The campaign pays for their room and board (among the expenditures made by the campaign are purchases of “campaign house furniture” at Ikea, plumbing services, and at least one mattress), and it pays each worker a stipend of $200 per month.
Pleitez recruited a similar crew for a Congressional run in 2009.
“We had about 50 people living in a couple of homes,” said Eric Hacopian, who worked as Pleitez’s campaign consultant in that race, but this time is working for Perry in the mayoral race.
“We shocked the hell out of everyone,” Hacopian said of Pleitez’s Congressional bid. Then 26, Pleitez won 7,000 votes, about 13 percent of the vote, finishing third behind two more established candidates.
“Can you replicate that in a mayor’s race, which is five times larger? Not really,” Hacopian said. “But is he going to finish at two or three percent? No, people are wrong about that. He’ll do better than people think.”