By James Rainey, Maeve Reston and Kate Linthicum

Two veterans of Los Angeles politics, Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel, pushed ahead of six other candidates in initial election returns Tuesday and appeared to be well-positioned to advance to a May runoff to become the city's next mayor.

Former council President Garcetti and his onetime council colleague Greuel broke to a significant lead over Councilwoman Jan Perry, entertainment lawyer Kevin James, former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez and three lesser-known candidates.

Greuel, 51, would be the first female mayor of Los Angeles, ironic timing considering women could face an uphill climb to retain at least one seat on the 15-member City Council. Garcetti, 42, a fourth-generation Angeleno, would return his family to a marquee post in local politics. His father, Gil, served as Los Angeles County district attorney from 1992 to 2000.

The outcome of a proposal to add a half-cent to the city's sales tax remained less certain, with Measure A trailing narrowly as early returns were tabulated -- extending just one of the many financial uncertainties that will confront the next mayor, who will face budget deficits projected at $216 million a year and more.

The increase would bring sales taxes in Los Angeles to 9.5%, one of the highest rates in the state, and raise $200 million a year for the city treasury. The measure received ardent support from Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and a belated endorsement from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will leave office July 1 after the maximum two terms.

City budget analysts have warned that the tax's failure could lead to cutbacks in police and fire service, and make it more difficult for the next mayor to balance income and spending. But critics, including all of the leading candidates to replace Villaraigosa, argued that Los Angeles should balance its books without asking taxpayers for more money.

Speaking to voters just after 11 p.m., Garcetti presented himself as a problem-solver who would fight for average people, while he charged Greuel would be held in the thrall of powerful public employee unions, who have donated heavily to support her campaign.

"It's a choice between identifying problems and solving them," Garcetti said. "It's a choice between a mayor's office that's bought and paid for by the powerful workers at the DWP union or a mayor's office that is by the people, for the people and of the people of Los Angeles."

Greuel, in turn, told backers that she had a chance to make history.

"We're 11 weeks from electing a mayor of Los Angeles so that no part of our city is left behind," Greuel said, as she was interrupted by loud applause, "and, yes, 11 weeks from making history, electing the first woman mayor."

Contrary to claims she would cave in to her union supporters, Greuel told backers she would be "a leader tough enough to root out waste, fraud and corruption at City Hall and bring bring our fiscal house in order." She charged it was Garcetti who could not be trusted to represent average Angelenos. "They want to have a mayor who they know will not say one thing to one group and completely the opposite to the other," Greuel said.

It appeared Greuel would score an early coup in her likely runoff with Garcetti, as the union that represents 10,000 civilian city employees was poised to announce an endorsement Wednesday.

An official for the Service Employees International Union declined to say who its support would go to, but a Garcetti spokesman said it would be Greuel. The councilman's aides made it clear they intended to try to use that endorsement against Greuel.

"Eric had to make difficult choices," said Jeff Millman, Garcetti's spokesman, ".... to make real pension reform and balance the budget. It appears that SEIU 721 doesn't want that."

After eight years of the flash and occasional missteps of Villaraigosa, the leading mayoral contenders largely eschewed grand gestures and broad new visions for Los Angeles, instead offering City Hall experience and promises to tend to details.

Greuel, who worked in the administrations of Mayor Tom Bradley and President Clinton, repeatedly told voters she didn't just want to be the mayor, but wanted to do the job of mayor.

Garcetti, a Rhodes scholar and onetime college instructor, promised to fill potholes and improve trash collection, labeling himself a "practical problem solver" with "proven results" in ads.

When Greuel stepped up with one of the campaign's few big proposals -- adding 2,000 officers to the Police Department's force of 10,000 -- she took fire from politicos and budget watchers inside and outside the campaign, who warned that the cash-strapped city could not afford more police. Greuel defended the plan as "aspirational," not a promise, to be pursued only as city finances allowed.

The controller and Garcetti had a substantial financial advantage over the rest of the field. Both spent just under $5 million as of election day, not counting $2.7 million in independent expenditure spending on behalf of Greuel, much of it from a committee backed by union and entertainment interests. That powered a television ad presence for Greuel and Garcetti that third-place fundraiser Perry (who spent $2.1 million) could not match.

Former federal prosecutor James, the lone Republican in the race, and Pleitez, who once worked for Villaraigosa when he was a councilman, raised less than $1 million. A $727,000 independent expenditure funded heavily by wealthy Republicans for James could not close the gap with the front- runners.

Such committees, with unlimited contributions and spending, are an increasing phenomenon in Los Angeles elections.

Nearly $5 million had been spent by election day on all municipal races by various independent campaign committees -- much of the money coming from organized labor.

All of the contenders opposed the sales tax and said they wanted to continue to work, as Villaraigosa has, to improve Los Angeles' public schools, even though the mayor has no formal power to set district policy.

With the limited policy differences, the hopefuls tried to distinguish themselves with their resumes. That led to attacks big and small. Greuel, in particular, took jabs from three rivals -- as James and Perry worked to break away some of her conservative backers, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, and then Garcetti joined the attack.

Greuel cited nearly 80 audits she conducted as city controller, saying they proved that she could be a tough manager. Her reviews uncovered $160 million in "waste, fraud and abuse" that could be put toward city services, she said in ads and at campaign stops.

However, a Times review found more than half of the claimed savings came from just two audits. One called for shifting money from one city fund to another and the other counted a large revenue projection from a city contract that Greuel herself had labeled "unrealistic."

Garcetti pitched himself as the only candidate who, as council president, had led difficult decisions to reduce employee benefits and help close the city's budget deficit.

But Perry, as a council member, also voted for those changes and many City Hall insiders viewed her, Villaraigosa and others as pushing harder for concessions from employee unions.

(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times