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Garcetti’s India move is no surprise. But it still stirred emotions and speculation

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti delivers his annual State of the City address in April.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti delivers the State of the City address from the Griffith Observatory on April 19 in Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In Los Angeles, the news that Mayor Eric Garcetti was being tapped by the Biden administration as its nominee for ambassador to India was greeted with little surprise, following months of speculation about the possible pick.

Much of the reaction revolved around the ongoing crises in the city, most notably homelessness. Miguel Santana, who served as the city’s top budget analyst for much of Garcetti’s tenure, said the mayor served the city during “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Under Garcetti’s watch, he said, the city experienced massive economic growth. “At the same time, the city experienced unprecedented disparity between the haves and have-nots and a tremendous growth in inequality,” said Santana, noting the rise in homelessness and the challenges the faced by the working poor during the pandemic.

“The mayor doesn’t own 100% of that, obviously, but this is the Los Angeles that exists today,” he said.

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Local homelessness activists have been among Garcetti’s sharpest critics. Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie, pastor of skid row’s Church Without Walls, said the mayor appeared to be “failing forward” into a higher post despite his record on homelessness in Los Angeles, complaining that he had failed to address the underlying causes of the crisis.

L.A. Tenants Union organizer Trinidad Ruiz said the mayor was “taking with him a legacy of failure,” lamenting that “someone so ineffectual is now going to be representing the United States on a national level.” At one point, activists put up stickers declaring Garcetti “missing” because of his regular absences from the city, Ruiz recalled.

“His absence wasn’t just physical. There was an absence of leadership as well,” said Ruiz, who is also a co-founder of People’s City Council, citing tenant displacement, criminalization of unhoused people and police killings of Black and brown people as examples of Garcetti “leaving a city that is worse off.”

Garcetti’s record has also spurred criticism from groups concerned about how growing encampments have affected other residents and businesses. Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., said she has long been frustrated with the mayor’s handling of homelessness and trash on the streets, saying he “leaves with a tattered resume.”

“Brilliant man, horribly flawed execution as the manager of a city that’s in trouble,” said Lopez, whose organization manages a business improvement district that includes part of downtown, including skid row. “I understand being mayor of Los Angeles involves national and global policies, but not at the expense of what’s happening on our streets.”

When the nomination was announced, Garcetti was met with praise from many at City Hall. Councilman Kevin de León said, “Eric has navigated our city through some of its darkest moments, and I have every confidence that he will make a strong ambassador to India.” Councilman Mike Bonin said he “will do Los Angeles proud.”

Council President Nury Martinez said that “from raising the minimum wage to managing the pandemic crisis, I have always been grateful for our partnership, and I have no doubt he’ll do amazing things in this new role.”

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas opined that “governing a city as magnificent, complex and diverse as Los Angeles is no easy feat, and Mayor Garcetti has done a remarkable tour of duty.”

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William Funderburk, a former Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioner appointed by Garcetti, said the mayor has crucial experience in managing a crisis and an underappreciated background in military intelligence that would serve the country well in the new post. He praised his leadership on environmental issues during his tenure.

“There are a lot more problems that L.A. has to tackle, but Mayor Garcetti has a lot of things to look back on,” including pushing for renewable energy and joining international efforts focused on climate change, Funderburk said. “He’s shown himself to be an international leader already.”

Jennifer Hark Dietz, deputy chief executive of the housing and services provider PATH, commended Garcetti on “his vision in addressing homelessness,” saying the group was “grateful for the groundwork, funding and infrastructure that was established by Mayor Garcetti.”

Some met the news with a shrug. Getting tapped as a possible ambassador may help Garcetti move up the career ladder, but “I don’t think it has that much relevance to the average Angeleno,” said Kwazi Nkrumah, co-chair of the Martin Luther King Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, a group of civil and human rights activists.

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“I don’t think that many of the really critical issues in this town have really been addressed effectively,” not just by Garcetti, but by the entire political leadership of the city, Nkrumah said, including affordable housing and police killings. “These are just basic things that affect the lives of massive numbers of people in this town.”

Cyndi Otteson, an Eagle Rock resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last year, said it was unfortunate for Garcetti to take another job at such a crucial time. Garcetti had also considered a run for president, which Otteson argued had diminished his focus on Los Angeles during his tenure.

“We have massive unresolved issues with homelessness and coming out of the pandemic,” Otteson said. “It reveals the danger of elected officials looking at another position while not fulfilling the duties of the job they were elected to do.”

Many speculated about how the power vacuum would affect the political future of Los Angeles. The nomination is “throwing L.A. politics into chaos right now,” said Dermot Givens, an attorney and political consultant who is not currently working with any city candidates. Chief among the concerns for mayoral hopefuls, Givens said, is who steps in as an interim mayor.

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“You want to make sure that interim mayor is not someone that could potentially do anything or create an issue to impact your campaign,” Givens said. “No one said that the interim mayor can’t run for mayor.”

It’s up to the City Council, which has the power to choose an interim replacement for Garcetti, to determine just how much change the mayor’s departure will bring, said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson.

The significance of Friday’s announcement “really depends on who the City Council picks as interim mayor,” she said. “If they pick a caretaker who just continues the policies that are being implemented, their day-to-day lives will not change.”

And for candidates seeking to replace Garcetti, the announcement was a springboard to talk about their own plans. Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor on a platform that includes banning encampments on parks and sidewalks, said “his departure will leave a vacuum in leadership in Los Angeles which I am eager to fill.”

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“The next year will determine whether we clean our city, or whether we endure more of the same,” Buscaino said.


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