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Editorial: Goodbye, Mayor Garcetti. Hello, political turmoil

Eric Garcetti sits during a Metro subway line groundbreaking ceremony.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is President Biden’s choice as U.S. ambassador to India.
(Los Angeles Times)

It’s official. President Biden has picked Mayor Eric Garcetti as his ambassador to India.

Assuming the U.S. Senate gives Garcetti the OK, the mayor could be quitting his post more than a year early and leaving a leadership vacuum at a particularly challenging time for Los Angeles.

We had urged the mayor to stay and finish the job, but it’s clear Garcetti has been itching to exit City Hall for some time. No wonder — his office has been hampered by scandals and embarrassments lately. Now the question is how to manage the scramble for his seat in a way that keeps L.A. from foundering in discord for months. It won’t be easy, but it’s essential: Los Angeles is emerging from a pandemic and faces critical choices to address its recovery, homelessness and future financial stability.

The political maneuvering over who might become mayor began even before Garcetti’s nomination was announced. And it’s going to continue for weeks, and possibly months, as Garcetti awaits confirmation. Part of the challenge is that the city charter gives the City Council options for how to fill the vacancy rather than dictating a fixed course of action, creating the sort of uncertainty that invites a power struggle.

One thing is sure: The president of the City Council will take over as acting mayor upon Garcetti’s departure. At the moment, that’s Nury Martinez, who won the title in January 2020. But Martinez has suggested she might run for mayor next year, and in the past, council presidents have relinquished that post when running for another office.

Whether the council president is Martinez or someone else, that dual role as the city’s top executive and the leader of its legislative body could be problematic for an extended period of time. Those are two highly demanding jobs. Plus, there’s a tension in serving as both the mayor, who is focused on citywide issues, and head of the City Council, whose members are typically driven by more parochial district issues.

Alternatively, the City Council could schedule a special election to let voters choose the person to serve out the rest of Garcetti’s term. But given the expense of a holding a citywide election and the fact that we’re just a year away from the regularly scheduled 2022 mayoral primary, a special election isn’t appealing.

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Or the City Council could choose to appoint someone to finish Garcetti’s term. That’s messy as well.

At least four of the 15 council members have expressed interest in running for mayor. They are unlikely to elevate someone who might use the temporary job as a launchpad into the permanent job. Some L.A. officials have privately expressed concern about having an Ed Lee situation here. After then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom won election as lieutenant governor in 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors appointed City Administrator Lee to serve out the remaining year in Newsom’s term, on the condition that Lee not run for the job. Seven months later, Lee changed his mind, entered the mayor’s race and won — infuriating his competitors who had supported his appointment.

There are several names being floated as contenders precisely because they could not or probably would not run for mayor, including Councilman Paul Krekorian, who is in his final term; former City Controller Wendy Greuel, who lost to Garcetti in 2013; and even former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who legally couldn’t try for another mayoral term.

Beyond political advantage, there are good reasons to pick an interim mayor who is not actively running for office or up for reelection. There are too many major decisions facing the city in the coming months. Those include resolving a federal lawsuit over homelessness and a federal judge’s order to rapidly move thousands of people off the streets on skid row, adopting a new housing plan to meet the demand for 455,000 more units and balancing the city budget when federal relief money runs out. Angelenos need a mayor who can make tough choices and stand up to constituents and interest groups without worrying about losing votes in next year’s election.

And while council members might be tempted to pick an interim mayor who is simply a bureaucrat capable of keeping the streetlights on and trash trucks running, there are good reasons to elevate someone who has the gravitas to lead in the tough circumstances that inevitably arise, such as a major earthquake or civil unrest. As the last year has shown over and over, this is not a time to set city governance on autopilot.


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