LOS ANGELES (AP) — An early tally of mail-in ballots and a sprinkle of returns from precincts Tuesday pointed to a tight race for Los Angeles mayor that could leave a winner unknown on Election Day.
The preliminary count pegged city Controller Wendy Greuel at 51 percent and city Councilman Eric Garcetti at 50 percent, with only 233 votes separating them out of more than 145,000 cast.
Despite record spending, turnout at polls appeared sluggish after a campaign that centered on the city's ailing economy and budget and the influence of municipal unions.
The two City Hall regulars failed to bring much sparkle to the contest to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who exits office July 1 after two up-and-down terms.
Only one of four voters in the nation's second-most populous city were projected to cast a ballot, possibly a historic low in a city known to shrug at local politics.
The tightness of the race between the two Democrats suggested it could take days to count all the ballots.
Garcetti, 42, a city councilman who could become the city's first elected Jewish mayor, and Greuel, 51, who could become the first woman to hold the job, occupy so much of the same policy turf they've been dubbed "Greucetti."
A steady stream of negative advertising from the campaigns and outside groups has helped obscure the candidates' promises about free-flowing traffic, new jobs and better schools in coming years.
Voters also were judging three competing ballot proposals to manage the city's proliferation of pot shops, forcing residents to weigh the needs of the sick against complaints about crime around the dispensaries.
While some cities successfully managed pot collectives, Los Angeles fumbled and dispensaries sprouted across the city. Proposition D would cap the number at 135 — the total that opened prior to 2007 — and raise taxes slightly; Proposition E would cap the number at the same level but raise no new taxes; Proposition F wouldn't limit the number of pot shops but would put stringent controls such as audits and background checks on employees while also raising taxes.
The proposition with the most votes wins — if it collects a majority. If none of the measures receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the issue could bounce back to the City Council.
Greuel and Garcetti emerged from a March primary in which no candidate secured the majority needed to win outright, leading to Tuesday's runoff. Only about two in 10 voters went to the polls in that race.
The mayoral contest has seen record spending — over $30 million overall — and the outcome was expected to swing on appeal with key voting groups, including blacks, Latinos and older whites, and turnout in the San Fernando Valley, South Los Angeles and other battleground neighborhoods.
On Monday, Greuel sent off a final round of recorded endorsements from former President Bill Clinton, in whose administration she once worked, while Garcetti was on campaign stops arguing a simple point to mostly indifferent residents: The election matters.
While Garcetti could become the first Jewish man elected mayor, he would not be the first Jew to hold the job. Bernard Cohn was mayor briefly in 1878, after being appointed to fill a vacancy.
The pace of activity at one Silver Lake polling place was slow. Voters faced no wait for booths at midday.
"I voted for Wendy Greuel," said Chris Johnson, 31, a college employee. "And I voted for her largely because of Bill Clinton's endorsement of her."
Voter Angela Beltran, a nonprofit research analyst, said the choice was not a gender issue.
"It was more a matter of who has done a lot of the work in the community and in the city," she said. "I've just seen Eric Garcetti really flourish and grow here in Los Angeles."
The lack of public interest ran counter to what's at stake. A key issue has been the city's shaky $7.7 billion budget and the prospect of living with less. Spending is projected to outpace revenue for years, and rising pension and retiree health care bills threaten money that could otherwise go to libraries, tree-trimming and street repairs. Villaraigosa urged his successor to try to block a 5.5 percent pay increase for civilian employees.
With so much common ground on policy, the race became a duel over character issues as well as a referendum on who was closer to politically powerful municipal unions often criticized for landing generous raises and benefits.
Garcetti's commercials labeled Greuel "DWP's mayor," a reference to the Department of Water and Power, whose workers financed ads to help install her at City Hall.
Greuel's attack ads hit Garcetti for a fundraiser organized by a developer who she says once served prison time for fraud.
AP video journalist Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.