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Mayor Garcetti's presidential ambition: Is he serious?

Mayor Garcetti's presidential ambition: Is he serious?
Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti: On the campaign trail? (Los Angeles Times)

Is he or isn’t he?

That’s the question for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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Is he running for president of the United States, as has been speculated for months, or not?

If so, and it comes down to Trump or Garcetti, I’m with Garcetti.

Then again, if it comes down to Trump or a fig tree, I like figs.

But don’t you have to have your own house in order before you consider trading up? Given the current state of Los Angeles, which has become the nation’s largest tent city, it’s not as if Garcetti could put himself out there on a “mission accomplished” victory tour.

It’s hard to say, though, whether Garcetti is going to run, because he doesn’t seem to be entirely clear on the matter. He claims he isn’t focused on life after City Hall, despite trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three early-voting states you do not fly to just to sample the ice cream.

“I’m not interested in my next job,” Garcetti told me Friday by phone, speaking from Hanoi in Vietnam. He’s on a 10-day Asian tour, drumming up business and tourism for Los Angeles.

But then he said something that made it sound as though he’s going through a bit of a Walter Mitty phase. James Thurber’s character imagined himself as a fighter pilot or surgeon, and I’m willing to bet Garcetti has imagined what it would be like to wake up in the White House.

“I’m concerned about this country, period. I think all of us should be. This is the worst moment I’ve lived in in my lifetime,” he said, killing any chance he might have had to get invited to Mar a Lago.

Garcetti listed, among his many concerns, climate change, civil rights and America’s stature abroad.

“There are a couple of things missing in this country: kindness, moral leadership, and people who deliver, who don’t invent problems they can’t solve, but look at real problems and address them. Potholes, infrastructure, making college free, [raising] the minimum wage,” Garcetti said.

Also missing, by the way, are the records on what it costs taxpayers for Garcetti’s security detail to travel with him. The LAPD has refused to say, Garcetti has deferred to the police, and the L.A. Times has filed a lawsuit, which I’ll get to in a minute.

First, let’s talk politics.

No one has ever gone directly from any City Hall to the White House, and you would have better odds playing the lottery than betting on Garcetti to break the spell.

But who knows?

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If a barking braggart can insult women for their looks, make fun of a disabled guy, set race relations back 50 years, lie pathologically, boast about grabbing women by their crotches, tell working stiffs he’s too smart to pay taxes, insist the first black president was from Africa and still become president, a reasonably intelligent Chihuahua could get elected, and no one can be ruled out.

“Garcetti has as much of a chance as Trump did two years before the 2016 election, and as much as Obama had two years before 2008,” said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Even then, how would Garcetti beat Trump, whose happy hordes think he’s the lord and redeemer?

A third-party candidate like Ohio Gov. John Kasich draws Republican votes from Trump and the Democrat slips through the back door of the White House, Guerra theorized.

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The problem is that Garcetti is so far down the list of potential Democratic nominees, he’s almost invisible. Even among Californians, you’d have to rank him behind U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, if not U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.

And then you’ve got Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the list, each of them miles ahead of Garcetti in terms of name recognition and access to money.

A lot of political insiders guess Garcetti is more interested in branding himself as a contender so he gets consideration for a Cabinet post if a Democrat beats Trump, or because it might help in a run to replace California Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she retires.

But let’s say against all odds, Garcetti emerges as a true contender. He’s young, he’s Mexican-Italian-Jewish, he speaks Spanish, he talks a good game on tech and transit and the future of cities, he’s green, he’s a sharp public speaker.

What happens then?

A TV ad runs. One minute, maybe, although 30 seconds could do the trick. You see homeless encampments everywhere, hellish traffic and caravans of people leaving town for affordable housing in Nevada. The narrator, in one of those dreadful tones you hear only in political ads, ticks off the sad litany of budget deficits, soaring DWP rates and record payouts for police misconduct and dangerous roads, with decrepit, rupturing sewer lines and sinkholes big enough to swallow vehicles.

Goodbye, White House.

You can’t put all of that on Garcetti. But he’s been at City Hall for 17 years. His record is mixed, with a nice little list of triumphs if not a great history of political courage. But if you haven’t heard, they play dirty in politics, and in a dogfight, Los Angeles will be made to resemble a Garcetti hellhole, to borrow a phrase from Le Grande Orange.

Look, I don’t have a problem with Garcetti traveling all over the place on city business. L.A. is an international city and he ought to be out and about, cheerleading and cutting deals.

And I don’t have a problem with him running for president, if that’s what he’s doing.

But when he’s on the road for his own pursuits rather than ours, we shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Times reporter Dakota Smith reported last September that Garcetti had spent roughly one-third of the previous 12 months out of town. (Garcetti told me Friday morning he disputes the numbers, arguing that he was in town for parts of the days in which he was marked absent.)

Smith reported that Garcetti was out of California for campaign or political events for 17 days. In addition, of his 112 days out of town, 62 were listed as vacation time or no explanation was provided.

So far this year, Garcetti told me, he’s been away only five days on what he would call political ventures.

The Times argued in its lawsuit that city officials are violating the California Public Records Act and the California Constitution in refusing to turn over the records. But the Los Angeles Police Department argues that the details could compromise the mayor’s safety, and Garcetti has taken its side.

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“To be clear, I pay my own costs,” Garcetti told me about travel that is not related to city business.

He said he once told his father, the former district attorney, that he’d rather not have security with him. He said his father told him:

“This isn’t for you. This is for your family.”

The mayor added:

“I’m not going to go into details about the sorts of threats I get.”

OK, fine.

But Garcetti and the police could tell us what the security costs are — airfare, lodging and vehicle rental — without giving up any details that would compromise his security.

Or better yet, when Garcetti is on personal pursuits, he should pay the security costs out of his own campaign funds or his own pocket.

That could only help with his presidential bid.

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