Eric Garcetti is one of the city’s more likable public officials. He’s smart, dapper, quietly confident, attentive to detail, seasoned enough to be taken seriously by power brokers but boyish enough to tend his Twitter feed. He’s quite liberal but also a member of the Navy reserve. He’s a good listener. And he’s deeply immersed in Los Angeles history, with roots in Italy and Mexico, heir to a significant family name and a three-term member of the City Council, where he spent six years as the council president. So, is he a mayor?
FOR THE RECORD:
Garcetti: Jim Newton’s March 26 column about Eric Garcetti’s mayoral prospects referred to a lunch meeting the councilman addressed. The lunch was put on by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, not the Los Angeles Civic Affairs Forum.
Garcetti is one of three members of the City Hall establishment who are running for mayor in 2013, and he believes he has a path to victory: His candidacy is rooted in Hollywood, which he represents on the council. From that base at the center of the city (both geographically and culturally), he could expand by drawing support from Latinos and liberals (with no prominent Latino in the race, Garcetti’s Mexican heritage and command of Spanish are helpful). That could give him bases on the Westside and Eastside, and though he’s unlikely to trump his colleague, Jan Perry, among blacks (she’s African American) or his former colleague Wendy Greuel in the Valley, he might at least hold his own in both those segments. That could be enough to get him into a runoff, at which point he’s well positioned.
Smart money in the mayor’s race makes Garcetti, if not exactly a favorite, at least a top contender, especially if County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky takes a pass (little-known fact: Yaroslavsky officiated at Garcetti’s wedding). But as I talk to political insiders and analysts, here’s the question I hear over and over about the councilman: Is he tough enough? He’s not regarded as a budget hawk in the mold of, say, Councilman Bernard C. Parks, and he’s never had to run a business. Can he make the hard choices required of a mayor?
He knows the question is out there, as evidenced by his remarks at a luncheon last week hosted by Emma Schafer, a consultant who puts on regular events as part of her Los Angeles Civic Affairs Forum. Yaroslavsky appeared at the same event in January and mostly made news by declining to say whether he would join the race for mayor. In Garcetti’s case, he opened by joking about his friend’s ambivalence, contrasting the uncertainty of the supervisor — whom he did not name — with his own determination. “I am running for mayor of Los Angeles,” he said emphatically. The small crowd applauded warmly.
Most of Garcetti’s comments were dedicated to highlighting the record of Hollywood under his stewardship: violent crime down 66%, a near-tripling of parkland, tourism on the rise. He expressed great personal pride at having spearheaded the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, which helps teach residents how to take charge of their communities. Those are the types of achievements that may separate Garcetti from the expected line of attack: that he’s a member and a leader of a council that’s not particularly well regarded. Austin Beutner, a businessman who served briefly as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s No. 2, already has begun to shape his critique of a do-nothing City Hall, and if mall developer Rick Caruso enters the race, that approach will be even more emphasized, as Caruso is a blunt critic of the government.
Garcetti knows that, and as he reached the end of his presentation, he noted, in response to a question, that he expected this campaign to feature much talk about “toughness.” He agreed it was important but added that genuine toughness requires not just that one “stand up for principle but also getting to yes. It’s not just about yelling back.” Indeed, he’s shown just that ability, helping to negotiate a city contract that required workers, for the first time, to contribute to their retiree health benefits, and then selling that deal to the unions.
As we walked to his car afterward, Garcetti elaborated, noting that he “craves” executive authority because he knows the frustrations of being a legislator who can set goals and grill general managers but who lacks the ability to replace those who fail. That too anticipates the challenges of Beutner, Caruso and even radio personality Kevin James, who will argue that their private sector bona fides trump those of the government candidates in part because they’ve had to hire and fire. It’s all a bit phony — for every private sector executive who proved his toughness by cutting because it was necessary, there’s another for whom so-called downsizing was merely evidence of kowtowing to a boss or lacking creativity — but it’s part of the early positioning of this campaign.
With his staff impatiently urging him to wrap it up, Garcetti noted that his early donors already come from every council district in the city and that most have never given to a local campaign before. He agreed that his district is a proxy for what he hopes to accomplish, but he’s reaching beyond it now, hoping to build not just a political coalition but a governing base. Garcetti carefully stripped off his coat and piled into his car, a Prius.