Eric Garcetti is walking on a political tightrope as he looks to work with Trump

Before election day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti didn’t hold back when it came to Donald Trump.

“He’s a racist. He’s a bigot. He’s sexist,” Garcetti told reporters in May, criticizing the Republican presidential hopeful for his views on the economy, immigration and women, among other things. “What we cannot do with Donald Trump is normalize him as a candidate.”

That kind of criticism was common for Democratic leaders in deep-blue California, where slamming Trump brought few political risks.

But since Trump’s victory, Garcetti has adopted a more civil tone.

They spoke by phone last week, and Garcetti has expressed his willingness to work with the president-elect on infrastructure and the economy.

At the same time, Garcetti has offered assurances that the city won’t aid Trump on any widespread crackdown against immigrants who are in the country without authorization. 

It amounts to a political tightrope walk by Garcetti — an approach that could help the city in significant ways but may disappoint groups that want the mayor to take a harder line against Trump, especially on immigration.

“If Trump plays him for a fool, Garcetti is going to look bad,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “And there will be progressives that are angry that he didn’t take a tougher stance.”

Garcetti represents a city slated to receive $500 million in federal funding this year — money for homeless shelters, port security and more. The city is also locked in an international competition to bring the 2024 Olympics to Los Angeles.

He’s also one of several mayors who represent large, diverse and Democratic-majority cities and now must work with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

But unlike New York’s Bill de Blasio or Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Garcetti doesn’t have a “rough temper,” said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

“Eric’s not one to pick fights,” Regalado said. “He’s one to make things work by building consensus, by working behind the scenes.”

Flanked by teens at a Boyle Heights high school last week, Garcetti seemed to appeal directly to Trump as he talked about deportation concerns. According to Los Angeles school board President Steve Zimmer, about one-fourth of L.A. Unified’s 600,000 students are in the country without legal permission or have a family member with that status.

“I’m hoping his heart will be touched by understanding that we have folks who are undocumented that serve in our armed forces,” Garcetti said at the event.  “That we have families that are blended … different status.”

In contrast, de Blasio delivered a 40-minute address in front of hundreds of city workers, politicians and faith leaders that same day in New York, vowing to sue if Muslims are required to register and to assist women if Planned Parenthood of New York lost federal funding.

De Blasio also launched a hashtag, #AlwaysNewYork, seen as symbol of resistance to Trump’s presidency.

Emanuel also garnered headlines when he said Chicago would remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants.

Garcetti refuses to call Los Angeles a “sanctuary city,” saying the term is not accurate.

The phrase dates back to the 1980s, when U.S. immigration policies allowed some Central American immigrants entry, but not others. In response, Berkeley and a few other municipalities declared themselves “sanctuary cities” to accept those migrants.

Some L.A. immigration groups say Garcetti should declare Los Angeles a “sanctuary city,” technical inaccuracy or not.

“I know he’s a professor and that’s where he comes from, and he’s trying to educate people about sanctuary cities,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, referencing Garcetti’s past work teaching at Occidental College. “But let’s just embrace it, and say, ‘This is what we are.’”

Salas’ group and other local immigrant rights advocates, unions and legal organizations sent a letter last week to Garcetti and other local elected officials calling for more aggressive action in the face of possible deportations.

The letter didn’t single out politicians but warned that “abstract statements and vague promises will not be enough to confront the threat we now face.”

Among other things, the groups want city and county funding for legal representation for immigrants in deportation proceedings, and stronger assurances the Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department won’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to crack down on immigrants.

While praising Garcetti’s work in helping immigrants, Betty Hung, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, said in a statement that the mayor should “rise to the challenge of demonstrating strong and bold leadership to show unequivocally — in concrete policies and actions — that Los Angeles will hold the line.”

Garcetti’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment about the letter, and the mayor declined to be interviewed for this story.

In public statements, he frequently puts the battle over immigration in economic terms, saying mass deportations would hurt the Southern California economy, and that the region depends on the labor and tax dollars of non-citizens.

He also mentions his own immigrant family, including his grandfather who was brought from Mexico as a baby.

Garcetti brought up immigration in his call with Trump, stressing the important role immigrants play in L.A.’s economy and the need for immigration reform, according to a statement released by the mayor’s office.

The statement did not indicate what, if anything, Trump said about immigration, though it did highlight his support for L.A.’s Olympic bid.

As Garcetti seeks to forge working ties with someone he not so long ago derided as “the ultimate caricature of a politician,” some are waiting to see if the more measured approach pays off. 

Said Wilke of the League of United Latin American Citizens: “If Garcetti thinks he has a shot with Donald Trump, let’s just let that play out.”

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