After Los Angeles passed legislation this summer that will raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, Mayor Eric Garcetti positioned himself as a leading advocate for higher pay for the working poor, in Southern California and beyond.
Making a rare public appearance before the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to urge adoption of a minimum wage hike in unincorporated areas, Garcetti spoke of “the growing movement in this country to return to an old value … that hard work should be rewarded.”
“The nation is watching what we do here in Los Angeles,” he said.
But in the latest and most active front in the fight to raise pay for low-wage workers, those watching for Garcetti to get involved may have to be patient.
In a recent interview, the mayor said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll support a 2016 ballot initiative that closely mirrors L.A.'s wage increase and would gradually raise California’s minimum wage to $15, affecting more than 3 million workers.
“On the face of it, I absolutely support efforts to raise wages across the state of California for people who are struggling economically to get by,” Garcetti said.
But he added that he wasn’t sure $15 is an appropriate minimum hourly wage for all regions of the state, many of which have a lower cost of living than L.A. “As I’ve said before, geography matters,” he said.
Garcetti said he hadn’t been approached by backers of the proposed ballot measure or read the initiative, which has been publicly available from the state election office since July. “I hope to be helpful, and I hope to get my eyes on it soon,” he said.
Through spokeswoman Connie Llanos, Garcetti later amended his comments, saying he does support a statewide $15 minimum wage by 2021. Those are the key features of next year’s proposed initiative, but Llanos said the mayor believes it would be premature to state a position on the measure before it officially qualifies for the ballot.
As of this week, proponents said they’d collected the 366,000 petition signatures needed to get the measure before voters and are gathering an additional 235,000 signatures to serve as a buffer against legal challenges.
Garcetti’s hesitation contrasts with the strong support the measure has received from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whose cities raised minimum wage rates before L.A. Lee and Schaaf are co-chairing the campaign for the so-called Fair Wage Act of 2016, and this month called a news conference to champion the initiative. This week, California Controller Betty Yee became the first statewide elected official to back the measure.
Schaaf said in an interview that the proposed wage hike’s phase-in period would ease the hit to businesses’ payrolls. The initiative would incrementally boost the minimum wage over five years, with later increases tied to inflation.
“We recognize that different communities in California are different,” she said. “But I just think it’s a moral imperative that people who work should be able to live.”
As mayor of the largest U.S. city to embrace a $15 minimum wage, Garcetti seems a natural champion for the statewide pay boost.
But the ballot initiative comes at a time when broader political calculations could be influencing the mayor’s decision-making. Garcetti is widely believed to harbor ambitions for higher office, and a recent Field Poll put him in third place — behind his predecessor, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — in a field of possible 2018 gubernatorial candidates.
Initiative campaigns can offer prospective candidates — especially those, like Garcetti, who are less familiar to voters outside their home region — an opportunity to raise their profiles statewide. Newsom, for example, is leading a 2016 measure that would toughen California’s gun control laws.
However, endorsing a 50% jump in the minimum wage (California’s base wage is currently scheduled to reach $10 an hour in 2016) could risk alienating the types of centrist voters whose support Garcetti may need in any statewide race.
Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said he was surprised at Garcetti’s reluctance to embrace the minimum wage measure.
“I’m hard-pressed to explain that, unless he thinks it’s going to cost him politically,” Gerston said. “What’s he afraid of? Offending the Bakersfield vote?”
Garcetti’s hesitation could have its own risks, Gerston said, potentially costing the mayor support among the large number of blue-state Californians who support better pay for low-income workers.
“This is going to be a cornerstone of the Democratic and labor agendas in the years to come,” Gerston said. “And they’re going to look and see who’s with them and who’s against them.”
Garcetti may also be waiting to see whether multiple minimum wage measures qualify for the 2016 ballot before deciding if he will embrace one.
The Fair Wage Act campaign is being led by a wing of the Service Employees International Union that represents healthcare workers, SEIU-UHW. Another faction, the SEIU State Council of California, has so far withheld its backing, leading some to speculate the group might be mulling a rival minimum-wage ballot initiative.
State council President Laphonza Butler said the group is “doing a lot of research” on a potential statewide minimum wage, but declined to comment on whether another ballot initiative was in the offing. Butler was one of Garcetti’s primary allies in the push for L.A.'s minimum wage increase.
It’s not the first time Garcetti — whose original proposal for a more modest $13.25 minimum wage was sidelined by the L.A. City Council in favor of a more far-reaching ordinance — has given mixed signals about his stance on establishing a $15 wage floor beyond L.A.
In July, the Wall Street Journal reported Garcetti did not support a nationwide $15 minimum wage, based on comments he made to a reporter after a speech in Washington, D.C.
Garcetti sought to clarify his remarks in a subsequent Times interview. He said he backed a $15 minimum wage across the country, but had no fixed opinions on another crucial point: how quickly different regions or cities should be compelled to reach that level.
“There’s no cookie-cutter date,” he said.
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