Garcetti, Villaraigosa and Newsom, eyeing 2018, lay out visions for California

On a recent day filled with earnest discussions about mayoral policy matters, three politicians sketched out appeals that could become very familiar in future California elections.

Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, geeked out about the governing potential of his smartphone. His predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, passionately defined education as the next civil rights movement. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor and current lieutenant governor, warned that government is verging on extinction.

Most major political figures in California inhabit the same ideological turf -- they are more or less moderate-to-liberal Democrats, with policy distinctions a rarity. So it is personality and approach that can be the most compelling distinctions when their ambitions collide.

All three men, who delivered remarks Sunday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting, are looking ahead to 2018. The governor’s office will be open and, if Dianne Feinstein decides against seeking a new term, a U.S. Senate seat would also be available.

Newsom has already begun raising money to run for governor. Villaraigosa also sees a governor when he looks in the mirror. Garcetti has been raising money for his reelection but is widely seen as coveting a higher office after that.

Their candidacies would encompass more than the narrow topics they addressed. Still, what they said spoke to the campaigns that may be.

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Politicians usually telegraph a deep desire to be adored. Not so Garcetti, who two years into his term comes across as less backslapping than cerebral. In his yen for collecting and curating data to guide city decisions, he seems to be aping the hip tech people he has been trying to lure to Los Angeles. Sometimes it’s just a bit cocky.

“I know data can be scary. Who’s a technophobe out there? Who’s a Luddite?” Garcetti asked his fellow mayors, who were disinclined to play along. Seeing almost no hands rise, he added: “Those of you who are scared about data -- it can be overwhelming.”

Garcetti’s argument is that by monitoring city performance via smartphones, mayors can ride underlings for the improvements they want made. It’s less an effort to lead by inspiration than to hit numerical targets.

Garcetti said he wants to be an updated version of former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who used to ask voters: How am I doing?

“I ... want to wake up and ask my smartphone: ‘How am I doing?’” Garcetti said.

He can tell you which of the components of fire department response time -- the 911 operator’s end, the turn-out time and the travel time -- are averaging better or worse than the goal. He can tell how long the average Angeleno waits for a service call from the Department of Water and Power.

“People demand today a tech-fluent government and people demand today tech-fluent mayors,” he said, adding that “relentless innovation should be the hallmark of who we are.”

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If Garcetti can come off as a little bloodless, Villaraigosa is anything but -- emphatic, insistent, emotionally making the argument he made as mayor: Shortchanging kids educationally is a violation of their civil rights. It is an argument that has made him a target of teachers unions, which riles him.

“I worked for the teachers and other unions as well,” he said. “I believe in collective bargaining. I am not in any way anti-union.”

What he is fiercely against are the rules that have governed schools for decades, chief among them the protection of seniority.

“I tell people I left with a 58% approval rating. Imagine if I had come back to the people of L.A. and said, ‘Vote for me -- I’ve been here the longest.’” Better, he said, to say: “Vote for me because I’ve done something.”

Villaraigosa drew a direct line between the unrest in American cities and persistent failings in the nation’s schools.

“If we’re tired of rioting in our communities, if we’re tired of joblessness, if we’re tired of the prison industrial complex where so many of the finest young people in the poorest communities end up behind bars, then we’ve got to educate them, we’ve got to fight for them, we’ve got to stand up for the notion that their civil rights matter,” he said. “That’s what a great and good America is all about.”

Villaraigosa implored Democrats to “have the courage to stand up” to union power.

“We can do this on a path I call the radical center,” said Villaraigosa. “It’s not left or right, it’s not ideological,” he said. “It’s: Let’s fix what’s broken."

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Newsom struck the most apocalyptic note, all but dismissing the future of government as it currently exists. His argument was that government urgently needs to mimic how Internet companies are supplying such services as lodgings, transportation and music, in a way that is personalized and flexible.

“We are at this proverbial hinge point, going from something old to something new,” he said. “The Internet by definition has changed the way we live, the way we work, the way we play. It has changed everything.”

So government regulates taxis, and is surprised when ride-sharing firms such as Uber and Lyft move into the market. Government regulates hotels, and is shocked when home-sharing takes over.

“Our job as leaders, it seems, is not command and control but climate control, creating conditions,” he said. “Create the conditions where people can do more things together, be more participatory.”

Newsom’s cachet is provocative positioning -- he was way ahead of the pack when he backed gay marriage a decade ago. He is often underestimated when it comes to intellect. But it was on display in San Francisco, along with a downside: scant detail about exactly how the change he’s positing should be pulled off.

Still, Newsom’s pitch was a reminder of the strong generational thread at work in California’s politics. While Villaraigosa, 62, is leaning back to the civil rights era for his metaphors, Newsom and Garcetti, 47 and 44 respectively, use as their base of comparison the entrepreneurial successes of the new economy.

“It’s about dialogue, a two-way conversation,” Newsom insisted. “People want to engage. Everything we design, from a governance perspective, needs to be designed for participation. ... It’s not just a tech problem. It’s a cultural problem. It’s a mind-set.”

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