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Column: Garcetti to India would be a good move for L.A. — and for him. Let the next chapter begin

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gives his annual State of the City speech on April 19, 2020. President Biden has selected Garcetti to become the next U.S. ambassador to India.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

India?

Yeah, that was my first reaction when I heard a couple of months ago that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti might be President Biden’s pick for ambassador.

For the record:

7:18 p.m. July 9, 2021A previous version of this column misspelled Alyssa Ayres’ last name as Ayers.

He’s got Mexican and Italian blood. His maternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants.

So like I was saying... India?

But after thinking about it and talking to some foreign policy people, I changed my mind.

It’s not a bad choice for Biden, who made it official Friday in naming Garcetti to the post, pending U.S. Senate confirmation.

It’s not a bad choice for Garcetti, who has been an elected city official since 2001, the last eight as mayor. He’ll be walking away from a job that hasn’t been finished, but it’s not like it would get finished in the 18 months he has left in his term.

And it’s not a bad deal for Los Angeles, which could really, really use a leadership change.

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So let’s talk about three things here, all on the assumption that Garcetti gets the green light, despite developing City Hall scandals that could conceivably put the kibosh on the mayor’s escape from L.A.

Why India? What’s Garcetti’s legacy? And what next for Los Angeles?

I’m convinced, based on watching Garcetti in action for two decades, that he grew up wanting to be president of the United States. Critics aside, and he has many, I know him to be extremely intelligent and well versed on just about every public policy topic he has ever handled.

A Rhodes scholar, Garcetti’s training in 2013 and service as a U.S. Naval reserve officer affirmed my suspicion that from the time he had his first bowl of Wheaties, Garcetti wanted to be president of the United States, and his career in public service was partly about polishing the resume. You’ll recall, I’m sure, that he spent months considering a run for president in the last election.

But that didn’t work out. And then we all thought that out of loyalty to Biden, for whom he was a national campaign co-chair, his prize would be a Cabinet post. And when that didn’t happen, we were down to a possible appointment to diplomatic service.

It’s quite a comedown, in a sense. But a foreign policy expert, Alyssa Ayres, was nowhere near as surprised as I was about Biden considering Garcetti for India.

“Having a skilled manager with public sector experience makes a lot of sense for a mission of this size,” said Ayres, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and an adjunct at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“First,” Ayres said, “the fact that Mayor Garcetti has a close relationship with the president is important, and would certainly matter from the perspective of colleagues and interlocutors in India.”

It might help, too, that Vice President Kamala Harris is both a Californian and of Indian descent, so we can assume Garcetti will have her ear, as well.

In India, Ayres said, Garcetti would manage around 2,200 employees in four consulates and several federal departments, including Commerce, Agriculture and Defense.

But wouldn’t his lack of public policy experience be a problem?

“Los Angeles has been quite creative in its own engagement with foreign policy,” Ayres said. “Around the world we are seeing an increase and deepening of city engagement in foreign policy issues, and L.A. has been among the leading U.S. cities in that regard. The mayor’s leadership with the C40 Cities initiative suggests a high priority on climate change, which is centrally important to India now and in the years ahead.”

There’s been a lot of criticism over the years about amateurs and hacks being named as ambassadors as payback for loyalty and campaign donations. But James L. Bruno, a onetime foreign service officer who wrote about that very thing in his book “Foreign Circus,” said he doesn’t put Garcetti in the clown category at all.

“It usually works out well for someone like Garcetti, who’s smart, and is going to be surrounded by professionals in the embassy who bring him up to speed and bone him up before he meets with the locals,” Bruno said.

The one detractor I spoke to when Garcetti first surfaced as a potential ambassador was Dinesh Lakhanpal, of the Indian Cultural Center of Los Angeles, who said he didn’t think people in the country of his birth would be too happy.

“It doesn’t matter how smart you are,” Lakhanpal said. “If you don’t have foreign policy experience, and don’t understand the culture, you won’t get the respect of Indian officials.”

Garcetti will leave Los Angeles with the respect of some, but not all, residents of the great city he has served through a time in which both prosperity and poverty have been magnified. And the legacy, as I wrote in May, is mixed.

On the plus side, he pushed hard on earthquake preparedness, and although there’s a long way to go, the city is safer for the retrofitting upgrades he championed. On the once-in-a-century pandemic, you’ve got to give him pretty good grades for stepping up with a big response.

Garcetti has been a leader on renewable energy initiatives, water conservation projects and other sustainable city objectives. He was behind a minimum wage increase, too.

He’s led campaigns for more transportation funding that will finance projects for years to come, and for more homeless housing and services. But just as more transit funding doesn’t mean less traffic, more homeless funding hasn’t meant fewer homeless people.

Speaking of which, we’re at a point where spreading encampments have come to define city living. Tempers are hot, both the housed and the unhoused are tired, if not fed up, and many are wondering who, if anyone, is in charge.

Like I’ve said many times, it’s a complicated set of problems, not all of them created by local officials or under their control. But my sense is that people long ago grew tired of hearing Garcetti talk about all that’s been accomplished while it’s evident to everyone that things aren’t getting any better.

“I think he is one of the smartest elected officials I’ve ever met, and I have met a lot. The problem is that I don’t see him as an effective leader,” Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., told me in May, citing homelessness and lack of affordable housing as Garcetti’s biggest failures.

The problem hasn’t always been a lack of policy ideas, but lack of consensus, coordination and execution. To wit, there is no acceptable excuse for why it’s taken so long for so little new housing to materialize despite expenditures in the billions.

So what next? Chaos, potentially, because this could be a political mess. But let’s hope the time remaining in Garcetti’s term isn’t totally wasted.

The Los Angeles City Council has to decide whether to hold a special election for the rest of Garcetti’s term or appoint an interim mayor. I favor the latter, and because the City Council shares responsibility for the homelessness crisis, I’d rather not see a current council member complete Garcetti’s term.

The names mentioned so far include former council member and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, who is moving on from his job as superintendent of L.A. Unified, should be added to the list because of his sharp elbows and a level of impatience that could be refreshing.

And no, I wasn’t serious when I wrote last month that I was throwing my hat into the ring for interim mayor. I was merely emphasizing that in the short term and into the future, this great sprawling mess of a city needs a shakeup.

It needs a cheerleader and a scold.

A champion with both a big heart and a clenched fist.

With smarts, sure, but with savvy, too, and a sense of urgency.

Let the next chapter begin.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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