Democrats scanning the landscape, looking for a savior to lead the 2020 charge against Oval Office occupant Donald Trump often alight upon Eric Garcetti. The popular Los Angeles mayor was reelected in March with a stunning 81 percent of the vote in a diverse sanctuary city with a population of more than 4 million.
Smart, hip and perpetually positive, Garcetti embodies the youthful wellspring of Democratic core values: he’s a walking Statue of Liberty, welcoming everyone with the voice of an intersectional, feminist Rhodes Scholar infused with Italian, Russian Jewish and Mexican heritage and values.
He’s also a committed LGBT ally.
On Tuesday, ABC7 cited a New York Times report that suggested Garcetti may be considering a run for the White House. “Allies of Mr. Garcetti acknowledged that national donors had broached the subject of 2020 but said that was the extent of his attention to the race. Mr. Garcetti is weighing a campaign for governor of California next year,” The Times reported April 30.
The 2020 presidential speculation may have been fueled by a Politico story on March 8 entitled “Democrats planning first cattle call for 2020 contenders,” in which Garcetti’s name is included on the list of invited Democratic star speakers at the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) “Ideas Conference” on May 16.
Garcetti is going to the CAP conference — but to discuss ideas. And, he told the Los Angeles Blade in a May 1 phone interview, he is not interested in any other job than being mayor for the near future.
“Every day I hear of different things I’m running for from different people,” Garcetti says. “But when I have a conversation in my own head, it’s really being excited about my new job on July 1 when I get to be a second-term mayor.”
Garcetti describes being mayor of Los Angeles as his “dream job.”
“I love that we passed the largest infrastructure initiative in the nation’s history, times two, to build 15 rapid transit lines, passed two homeless measures to build housing and provide services to get our brothers and sisters off the street who are unhoused,” Garcetti says. “But the day after that, traffic was still bad, [homeless] tents were still in too many places in the city. So I truly am excited to see through the implementation of this work and that’s 100 percent what I’m focused on and new opportunities like bringing the Olympics back to L.A.”
As a result of a change in election dates, Garcetti’s second term will run five and a half years instead of four. “I think you can make a real impact on your city the longer you’re there,” he says. “There may be the time when I can serve my city in a different role, that also helps Angelenos even more. But I’m not a person who’s very focused on my political future. I’m focused on my city’s needs.”
Garcetti’s critics don’t believe that.
“From the start of Garcetti’s time as mayor, there was speculation that City Hall would be a mere pit stop on his way to the governor’s mansion. The distrust isn’t unique to Garcetti—ambition and capability in a politician often seem at odds with trustworthiness—but it isn’t going away, either. Mitchell Schwartz wants the mayor to pledge that he would serve a full term if reelected,” reports Gabriel Kahn in a long June 29, 2016 profile for Los Angeles Magazine.
“Garcetti is uncharacteristically awkward on the topic, telling me, ‘I have not yet sat down and done any hard thinking about governor,’ pausing as if unsure how to finish the thought. ‘But I certainly know that the work that I’m doing for L.A….and leading a lot of coalitions statewide that provides California cities some of the common help they need. But right now I’m not,’” Kahn wrote.
Garcetti was far from hesitant, awkward or calculating with the Los Angeles Blade. In fact, he was brimming with enthusiasm, which raises the question about how words like “ambition” and “leader” are interpreted in an era where Trump’s bromances with tough guys extend to self-proclaimed murderers like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
During his mayoral campaigns, Garcetti’s critics called him “weak,” not “tough” enough, and risk-averse, all signs of ineffective leadership.
“Nobody’s afraid of him,” one politico told Kahn for his “Who Is The Real Eric Garcetti?” profile.
But what many male politicos might see as weakness — not being authoritarian enough — feminists see as strength. And as California NOW said when endorsing Garcetti over mayoral rival Wendy Greuel in March 2013, “Eric Garcetti is clearly the stronger feminist.”
Political feminism is about respectful listening and consensus building, which has served Garcetti well.
Kahn notes that, “[u]nder his watch as city council president, the political body was almost eerily devoid of dissent. An analysis during the first seven months of 2009 by a think tank found that in 1,854 votes, all but 13 were unanimous.” As mayor, his general managers say he “gives them leeway and encouragement, which can foster a pleasant, productive work environment.”
Garcetti’s “ambition” is guided more by a duty to serve the public good than personal gain, something he learned when, as a privileged 16 year old, he distributed medicine to villages in Ethiopia during a human rights mission—among other experiences.
“Jewish history informs the decisions I make all the time along with the kind of values I was raised with in my family: the interconnectedness of morals and the importance of establishing local roots, but having global awareness. And I think the idea of having a kind of duty to give back and stay engaged, not just because it makes you feel good but because it’s part of your contract with your fellow human being,” Garcetti told The Times of Israel in October 2014 after becoming the first elected Jewish mayor of Los Angeles.
On May 1, addressing the May Day rally at LA City Hall, Garcetti took a firm stand against Trump: “It matters less who’s in the White House,” he said. “It matters who’s in this house.” Adding: “As long as I am mayor, the LAPD will never be a deportation force. They will be your police officers.”
Asked by the Los Angeles Blade about possible federal retaliation, Garcetti said: “The Constitution is on our side, luckily. We have a 10th Amendment, which says they can’t take away funding of ours just because they don’t like our discretionary policies.”
Those local discretionary dollars include services open to everybody, regardless of their immigration status. In fact, L.A. is the first city in the nation to dedicate $290,000 to address “the disproportionate rates of high unemployment in the transgender community and usually, in transgender communities of color,” Garcetti says, with job training programs open to undocumented transgender people, as well.
In March 2016, Garcetti established a transgender advisory council but not an LGBT council because LGBT people now have seats at all the tables. “My vision is more to integrate LGBT personnel, commissioners, advisors at every level and not just segregate them off in a way on issues that are just about the LGBT community,” he says. “I think so much of our progressive politics is about — even as lefties — segregating people and issues off to a well-tended corner. I want to see these be prisms that wash over all and everything we do.”
It is a vision Garcetti brings to the current Democratic debate over identity politics versus economic opportunity.
“It’s not that we have to get rid of identity politics,” he said. “It’s not like racism or transphobia or homophobia is something that was invented by us. It exists. It finds us and it has to be responded to. But I would flip it on its head — that transgender sister that I have needs a good job. And so yes, we need to be focused on good jobs and we need to make sure the focus is for everybody. But somebody who is selling herself on Santa Monica Boulevard and doesn’t want to be should have an opportunity to actually have a good job and to get a degree. And that’s something in common with the coal worker who deserves to get a good job and to have a good degree. So I do think Democrats have taken our eye off the ball of economic justice—but it’s not that we need to do that in an exclusionary way. We need to make sure we have opportunity and equality side by side.”
It’s an idea that Garcetti intends to talk about at CAP and at the upcoming California Democratic Party Convention. “We, as Democrats, have to get focused on what’s real and forget this either-or paradigm,” he says. “If I get asked one more time whether we should focus on identity politics or economic opportunity—I will scream because they are flip sides of the same thing.”