Long Beach politics will soon see a changing of the guard after voters elected an openly gay Latino mayor who pledged to unite the city's disparate neighborhoods.
City Councilman Robert Garcia narrowly defeated real estate investor Damon Dunn in an expensive race that shattered the city's record for election spending, earning 52.1% of the vote to Dunn's 47.9%.
Garcia, 36, will be the city's youngest-ever mayor.
"I'm incredibly grateful and honored to have been elected," Garcia said Wednesday. "I understand that for certain communities … this is a historic moment and a point of pride. But I ran to be the mayor of all of Long Beach, regardless of the color of their skin, or who they love, or what part of the city they're from."
Dunn, who would have been the city's first black mayor, congratulated Garcia on his victory.
"He will be a fantastic mayor," Dunn said.
Tuesday night marked the close of a long, expensive campaign for the city's top post. The open seat drew 10 candidates and prompted more than $2.8 million in spending, a city record.
In the runoff, Dunn, a former NFL player and one-time candidate for secretary of state, was perceived to have a disadvantage as a relative newcomer and a former registered Republican in a blue-leaning city, though Garcia also had once been a registered Republican.
But Dunn, 38, proved to be a formidable candidate, pouring $700,000 of his own money into the race and earning key endorsements from longtime local leaders.
Many voters who cast ballots for Dunn said they were looking for a fresh face and an alternative to Garcia, a city insider who received support from current Mayor Bob Foster as well as a slew of Democratic local and state officials.
"That cost Garcia my vote," said Tonny Christensen, 76, a retired Long Beach firefighter who said Foster's strong style of governing turned him off.
But Garcia, who immigrated with his family from Peru at the age of 5 and was the first in his family to graduate from college, rejected the idea that his administration would be a continuation of Foster's.
"Mayor Foster has done right by the city.... But I have different ideas, and we certainly have a different style," he said.
Early returns showed Dunn within striking distance, but by early Wednesday morning, results had Garcia forging ahead nearly 2,000 votes, prompting a crowd of Garcia supporters to erupt in cheers.
"What I love to see is all the youth that Robert's bringing in," said Stephanie Wells, a political consultant and Garcia supporter, as she looked around at the thirtysomethings sipping on drinks and dancing to Beyonce tunes at the election night celebration. "This is not the normal scene in Long Beach, and he's been able to engage and excite people."
Garcia has also promised to engage the city's northern neighbor and sometime-rival, Los Angeles, in a number of initiatives, including combating pollution at the twin ports and restoring g the L.A. river.
"The days of Long Beach and L.A. having a rivalry and fighting with each other are over," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who endorsed Garcia and appeared with him on election night.
Garcia plans to announce a transition team in the next several days, and has scheduled meetings with the city's department heads. His first priority, he said, is the city budget, which is due to be released shortly after he takes office in July.
"We have neighborhoods that are still struggling with crime and unsafe streets and not enough investment," Garcia said. "If we're really going to play a larger role in the region and across the country, we've got to address our poverty … and make sure all of our city prospers."