Newton: The real test for Garcetti

City Councilman Eric Garcetti campaigned for mayor for 622 days. He raised more than $8 million and secured the votes of 222,300 residents of Los Angeles. Now comes the hard part: governing.

He has his skeptics. Some worry that he's too liberal to rein in spending. Some fear that he's too amiable to demand performance. Some think he's too young (at 42) or that he's too much a creature of government. And some believe that Los Angeles is so unwieldy, its problems so thorny, that the city defies repair, even by the most talented chief executive.

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Hand it to Garcetti, though. He ran a disciplined, intelligent campaign, and as he pivots to the even greater task ahead, he still conveys the coolness that he maintained throughout the contest, first against a field of contenders and eventually against Controller Wendy Greuel.

Last week, I sat down with him to talk at length about not only the campaign, but about the challenges ahead. We met at a Starbucks in the Valley, surrounded by young people on laptops. A barista nimbly called out orders in two languages. I was almost certainly the oldest person in the place (which was chosen by Garcetti) and the mayor-elect was probably second.

By contrast, when I've arranged to sit down with outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he usually opted for an expensive meal with very expensive wine. Richard Riordan usually chose the Pantry (not surprising, since he owns the place), with bacon and eggs, followed by a walk around the block. Garcetti is definitely new school.

The new mayor says the campaign was a challenge, of course, but also a work of discovery. "Campaigns are very revealing," he said. "You campaign the way you're going to govern."

In his case, he said, that meant cementing a game plan early, working hard and resisting the temptation to jump off message to respond to this attack or that. It worked. While Greuel seemed to grow tenser and more defensive in the closing weeks, Garcetti seemed to grow cooler: He became quieter, seemed rested and focused — at least on the outside.

Some Garcetti skeptics worry that his calm demeanor is part of a debilitating niceness that will keep him from making and sticking to hard decisions. He's heard that knock, but insists it was never true and that the campaign helped him discover his own resolve. "I learned," he said, "that I'm ready to make decisions."

During our conversation he often seemed, as he did in the campaign, shrewd and a little vague. But he also seemed a bit more willing to display sharp edges. I asked him if Greuel had proposed anything during the campaign that impressed him and that he would try to implement as mayor. He paused for a long time, then finally answered: "I'm sure there were some policy ideas… but I can't think of any." On Friday, Garcetti and Greuel met for breakfast, and Garcetti said afterward that they had renewed their friendship.

What can the city expect in his early days as mayor? "First days and months," he said, "are a mixture of beginnings and symbols." We talked on June 12, almost three weeks before his swearing in, but he'd already plotted out much of Day 1. The morning will be devoted to meeting with the public, opening his doors to people outside the government and asking them to drop in and speak with their new mayor; the afternoon will be spent reaching out to business people, encouraging them to make suggestions for job creation and economic expansion.

Those two agendas are deliberate. The first is intended to start pushing back against a pervasive cynicism about government — remember that fewer than one in four registered voters in Los Angeles cast ballots in the last election — and the second is meant to underscore that Garcetti the mayor, like Garcetti the candidate, will hold jobs as his first priority.

In politics, it is often better to be lucky than skilled, and Garcetti may prove lucky in his timing. He comes to office just as the economy is rebounding, and thus his jobs focus may pay off whether or not he is particularly creative or effective.

The tougher challenge may lie with the city budget. As was exhaustively reported during the campaign, two leading city employee unions — those representing police officers and Department of Water and Power employees — spent heavily to defeat Garcetti. Their contracts are up next year, and Garcetti will be in a position to negotiate with officials who desperately preferred his opponent.

He insists that those talks will be respectful — "nobody's out for blood and retribution," he said, adding that "I'm a strong believer in standing up for working people." Moreover, Garcetti emphasized that he's never had a battle with unions before. Still, he recognizes those negotiations will be an early test of his resolve and independence, and he's in no hurry to bury the hatchet. As of last week, he still had not spoken with Brian D'Arcy, head of the union that represents DWP workers, or Maria Elena Durazo, who commands the Los Angeles County Labor Federation.

Being mayor is partly about picking people, and Garcetti already is deep into the job of imagining his new administration and its many commissioners. To direct his transition, Garcetti picked Rich Llewellyn, a longtime aide and adviser who was Garcetti's first chief of staff on the City Council. Llewellyn is solid, capable and deeply loyal to the mayor-elect.

Less publicly, Garcetti has reached out to other supporters inside and outside the government to guide his staff and commission selections. Matt Johnson, for instance, is an influential entertainment lawyer and active community member. He's not in Villaraigosa's inner circle, he's never sought elected office, and he's smart and dedicated to Garcetti — agreeing to take a month off his job in order to assist the incoming mayor.

Intelligence and loyalty are thus likely to be hallmarks of the Garcetti team. City Hall experience and ethnic representation may be lower priorities. Ruminating over his potential commissioners, for instance, Garcetti noted that he will strive for racial diversity, but that he's looking for other types of diversity as well — finding people who aren't already part of the government and bringing them in.

"To be representative is more than just color," said Garcetti, whose Mexican-Italian-Jewish heritage figured prominently in the campaign. "Every commission doesn't have to have every color."

One thing seems clearly near the top of Garcetti's agenda, and that's a fundamental restructuring of the mayor's office itself. Today, Villaraigosa sits atop a staff that includes a dozen deputy mayors. Garcetti said he will "radically" redesign that, with a much smaller number of top deputies.

As a candidate, Garcetti frequently cited his record as a council member as a rationale for his candidacy. Improvements in Hollywood, Atwater Village and elsewhere, he argued, were proof that he could create jobs, add parks, eradicate graffiti and find constructive ways to help schools. To make that case, he often relied on metrics — he pointed out again and again, for instance, that he'd doubled the number of parks in his district.

That naturally leads to the question of what measures he will use to gauge his success as mayor — and what measures voters should use. For Garcetti to be considered a success, does crime need to continue to decline? Does job creation need to pick up?

"It's a little early for me to be putting the specifics up, but I will be putting specifics up," he said last week. "I like numerical goals." If that sounds like a dodge, it may be that he's trying to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor. Villaraigosa was quick to identify numeric targets: promising to plant a million trees during his tenure and take control of LAUSD and raise the number of police officers to 10,000. When those goals turned out to be unachievable, he was blamed for failing even though he made some significant progress.

Garcetti did acknowledge a few areas on which he expects to be measured. He noted, for example, that voters would be justified in demanding that he deliver on job growth and that he produce a more responsive City Hall. He thinks calls to city agencies should be returned within 24 hours and that residents should be able to get prompt, useful help with problems. And he said that crime statistics, too, will be a valid measure of his effectiveness, specifically mentioning the need to continue the efforts of the LAPD and Villaraigosa to target gang crime, which today accounts for roughly half of all homicides in the city.

All of that suggests the general approach the mayor-elect intends to take. But the mayoralty is about style, too, and during the campaign, some people wondered whether Garcetti's personality is big enough for the job. He doesn't have Tom Bradley's towering presence or Villaraigosa's magnetic charm. By contrast, Garcetti is easygoing and boyish, which makes it easy to take him lightly.

And yet, there are signs already that residents have begun to see him as a mayor. As we got up to leave the Starbucks last week, customers who had been eyeing him politely suddenly rushed up.

One said she'd been out of work for some time; she spoke in English and Spanish. He answered her in both languages, and one of his aides gave the woman a card and promised to help. Another commended Garcetti for getting out of the office. "This is what we want, someone who's out in the city," he said, pumping Garcetti's hand and grinning. He and others lined up to have their photos taken with the mayor-elect, each asserting that they'd voted for him.

Garcetti's not mayor yet, but he's beginning to look like one.

jim.newton@latimes.com

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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