Can L.A.’s New Mayor Succeed Where Other Charming Liberals Failed?
The difficult task of ending income and social inequality in Los Angeles is now in the hands of a liberal new mayor, Eric Garcetti, an intelligent man with a friendly manner, a compromiser rather than a crusader, who wants to bridge the worlds of rich, poor and middle class instead of setting them against one another.
He was the most progressive candidate in this year’s mayoral election. But unlike New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a strong, reformist platform, Garcetti avoided hot issues such as economic disparity, which is as bad in Los Angeles as it is in New York. As he tried to thread his way through such issues, Garcetti ended up being opposed by both the Chamber of Commerce and a powerful union representing city workers. But other unions supported him, and he put together a coalition big enough to win in a race against another Democrat who was backed by Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson.
Los Angeles is a strongly Democratic city, with just a few Republican enclaves in the northwestern San Fernando Valley suburbs. Yet this does not translate into a strong liberal tradition. It is a city dominated by anti-union business and by a police department only recently reformed from rough, often brutal, treatment of residents of poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods. In the national and even the local media, Los Angeles liberalism seems symbolized by glittering fundraisers in rich homes attended by A-list celebrities who turn out to support President Barack Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown and other big name politicians. Grass-roots progressive organizations don’t make that list. In fact, news coverage of their marches, meetings and studies is so poor they must shout especially loud to be heard in the civic debate.
Liberal mayors — Tom Bradley, the first African-American to hold the office, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino in 133 years — were considerate of the rich crowd, which gave them financial backing for their campaigns. The moneyed people approved of the way these mayors governed with a trickle-down approach: Be nice to business, which hopefully would provide jobs for the middle class and working poor. The philosophy didn’t spare the city from the social and economic turmoil of the 1992 riots or the Great Recession.
Garcetti has seen all this while teaching in the city’s universities and as a member of the City Council. His wife, Amy Wakeland, is a leader and major fundraiser for one of the most active progressive organizations, the labor-backed Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has fought hard against income inequality.
Garcetti’s mother is Jewish, which, according to the religion’s law, makes him Jewish too — and Los Angeles’ first Jewish mayor. Her father, Harry Roth, headed the big Louis Roth clothing firm and was tailor to Lyndon Johnson until he took an ad in The New York Times urging the president to withdraw from Vietnam. At that point, LBJ got a new tailor. The mayor’s father, Gil Garcetti, a former district attorney, is of Mexican and Italian descent.
“I always felt myself to be Jewish and Latino very comfortably,” Garcetti told me during his campaign for mayor. “Weekends were both filled with bowls of menudo and lots of bagels.”
“My parents aren’t practicing, either of them,” Garcetti said. “We celebrated Passover and Hanukkah. I went to Jewish camp. I think I have become more of a practicing Jew or observant later in life. I came to my faith in college.”
Where Bradley and Villaraigosa grew up poor, Garcetti was raised in comparative affluence. His experience with Los Angeles’ poverty was acquired as a councilman representing a Hollywood area district that includes modest and slum apartments in the flatlands, nightclubs and theaters, and Latino working-class communities that are rapidly gentrifying. He seems at ease everywhere, chatting up constituents in fluent Spanish or English, using both languages at events as he goes from one person to another.
I find him hard to figure out. After I retired from the Los Angeles Times, I was appointed to the city ethics commission, a weak body charged with enforcing campaign contribution and conflict of interest laws governing city officials. Even though we had little real power, our very existence infuriated Mayor Villaraigosa and the 15 council members. When we proposed legislation to mildly strengthen laws, it was routinely sent to the council rules committee, the graveyard of reform. As council president, Garcetti headed the committee, which usually held up our proposals, then buried them without a vote.
Yet it’s hard not to like him. When I talked to him during the ethics commission period, he was always polite about our legislation, promising another look, another hearing or maybe even a vote. That agreeable manner was reflective of his behavior with his colleagues. He didn’t fight with them or try using his limited power to push them around. Mostly, he concentrated on his City Council district. It has improved and Garcetti deserves a lot of credit. Boasting about the revival of his district — my daughter and son-in-law lived there and didn’t find it so great — was a major theme of the campaign. In fact, all of the candidates campaigned as though they were running for City Council rather than mayor, avoiding controversial broad themes and favoring speeches on filling in potholes and clearing up traffic jams.
Having covered Los Angeles riots, fires, earthquakes, murder and the homeless, I was ready for a great debate on pressing urban issues. I waited in vain. Seldom if ever did I hear Garcetti and the other candidates talk about race. Nor did the homeless rate any attention, or the racial tension evident to those who looked below the surface. The closest they came to a debate about income inequality were vague promises about business tax breaks.
Now that he’s in office, I continue to have a hard time understanding where Garcetti is going. He is devoting considerable attention to improving technology and data gathering in City Hall, which is badly needed. I find it interesting to write about, but I know it is not at the heart of the city’s problems.
In his inaugural speech in July, he talked about the immigrants’ dreams, but not their poverty. He mentioned the veterans, but not those in the ranks of the homeless, badly in need of housing and treatment. Rather, he repeated his business tax reduction pledge and said he would ask the state to increase tax credits for film production. He didn’t discuss city employee pension and benefit obligations that may be driving Los Angeles to bankruptcy. Certainly, cutting or eliminating business taxes won’t help that problem. He promised to fix potholes and streets and trim the trees, a needed, unglamorous, but expensive task.
This is a safe course, but not enough for a city whose presently peaceful exterior masks much inner stress. If Garcetti doesn’t know it already, he’ll learn that being mayor of Los Angeles is like sitting atop a barrel of gasoline, ready to ignite when tensions get too great.