Sizing up Garcetti
In electing Eric Garcetti mayor, Los Angeles got someone who is very smart, a little wonky, fairly young, kind of hip, someone at ease with power and fame but who likes to drop names. He has more of an intellectual bent than any mayor in recent memory. He can quote Los Angeles’ founding documents (in the original 18th century Spanish) and Tupac Shakur. He was among the first in town to drive an electric EV1 and the last to give his up. He made sure Los Angeles had free wi-fi hotspots, and he riffs about smartphone apps that tell you where a parking spot has opened up on Hollywood Boulevard.
He’s eager to please, hard to pin down. If you want your mayor to be a Jewish kid from the Valley, he’s that. If you instead want a Latino from Echo Park, he’s that too. Progressive? Very much so in his own right, plus he’s married to a community organizer. And anti-establishment — remember how he notoriously told the Occupy L.A. folks to stay at their City Hall campsite “as long as you need”? And yet oh-so-establishment, periodically donning his military uniform for Reserve duty in Washington, sharing highlights of his talks with Wall Street bankers, lobbying to cut taxes on business.
He hangs with Barack Obama, shares some of the president’s unflappable cool, yet exudes a bit more warmth. He seems, at times, to be in direct and constant mental contact with every young, rising political star and every cutting-edge governing philosophy across the country.
He’s a consensus-builder who, when not careful, can become a bit of a Zelig, liking too much to be liked, mixing up constructive compromise with the path of least resistance. Few question his ideals, but some doubt his backbone. That’s what is about to be tested, as the challenges for Los Angeles’ new, young, complicated mayor begin right away.
He’ll face labor contract negotiations in a matter of months. He’ll face a City Council led by a former Assembly speaker and stocked with men who cut their political teeth in Sacramento. He’ll hear from Valley homeowners, Westside environmentalists, affordable-housing advocates, education activists, each insisting that they were the ones who were the key to his election, and each pressing for a vision of the city at odds with the others.
Those interests and more are no doubt cobbling together a mental user’s guide to Eric Garcetti. But let’s consider instead a how-to manual for the new Los Angeles, a municipality inhabited by diverse, hardworking, creative but sometimes ornery people, and led in City Hall by a fascinating personality. How does Los Angeles put Garcetti’s strengths to work for it? How does it deal with his weaknesses?
Start with the mayoral smarts. Embrace them. This city needs all the intellectual firepower it can muster, starting at the top. Garcetti has never been one to lord his brainpower over others, and in fact he’s good at recognizing and crediting ideas and abilities in allies and adversaries alike. This could be the smartest City Hall in a generation. That’s something to be celebrated.
And let’s latch on to his instinct for consensus. L.A. has a talent for saying no — to development, to government — and not much of a knack for saying yes to planning the future. Garcetti is good at convening, at talking, at working things out. Let’s let him. And in so doing let’s remember that his task is to get Los Angeles the best service at the fairest price, not to bring public servants or their unions to heel. But let’s be wary as well of the too-easy compromises, and be prepared to call him out for shortcuts or giveaways.
Let’s be happy with his powerful friends, and not assume that he pals with power for his ambitions alone; but let’s be ready to ask what’s in it for us. Say “hi” for us at the White House, Mr. Mayor, but bring us back some transportation funding.
He likes his tech solutions, and that’s great; Los Angeles always seems poised to embrace the future but never quite does it. Let’s let our new mayor help us get there. But let’s remind him, when we need to, what those programs and gadgets and ideas are for: to sustain and improve our quality of life. The best app is not the one that reminds you about City Hall but the one that allows you, at least most of the time, to forget it’s there.
And let’s keep in touch. Los Angeles’ mayors sometimes have a penchant for checking out after a couple of years — and so do Los Angeles’ people. Let’s keep Garcetti’s activist instincts and cerebral pursuits focused. Let’s indulge his desire for dialogue. Let’s make this work.
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