In late September, six months into a global pandemic that had devastated his city, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti prayed.
It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and things were a mess. On his watch, more than 250,000 people in L.A. County had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. More than 6,000 had died. Things were just as gloomy for the economy, with nearly 750,000 people out of work in L.A. county, bringing the region’s rate to a staggering 15-percent.
To find solace, L.A.’s top government official Zoomed in from his living room to services with IKAR, the non-denominational, politically progressive congregation where he’s been a longtime member. Wrapped in a tallit, Garcetti danced ecstatically to a central prayer in the musaf service, which had become a kind of anthem at the congregation.
As the music intensified, Garcetti jumped back and forth, up and down, oscillating between the prayer’s poles of strength and surrender— in an apt metaphor for his mayoralty. Over two terms, the Los Angeles mayor has faced a litany of challenges — a daunting homeless problem, relentless traffic issues, the pandemic, and a sex scandal — that have all laid bare his gifts and his shortcomings.
Now, with the election of former Vice President Joe Biden to the presidency, Garcetti’s record is under the microscope like never before, as rumors swirl that he’s on a shortlist of potential cabinet nominees in the new administration.
The appointment would be a coup for Garcetti, who has made no secret of his upwardly mobile political ambitions (he spent several years exploring a run for President but ultimately abandoned his plans). It would also be a coup for the city he serves, which stands to benefit from having an advocate in Washington.
Yet local enthusiasm about Garcetti’s record is lukewarm. Though he’s admired for his genial personality and obvious intelligence, many describe his style of governance as too conciliatory, and say his approach to policy seesaws between visionary and spineless.
So even as Angelenos feel pride at the prospect of the first L.A. mayor to have a real shot at a national position, many are questioning whether Garcetti deserves it.
“It’s easy to be a good mayor during boom times,” said Jack Humphreville, who writes the LA Watchdog blog for CityWatchLA and belongs to the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates. “Until the virus hit, revenues were up a couple billion dollars, the economy was on a roll. It’s hard to screw that up. But I think he did screw up.”
Garcetti’s press office did not answer written questions.
In 2013, Garcetti, the son of a Jewish mother and a father with Mexican and Italian Catholic roots, became the city’s first elected Jewish mayor and the second Mexican-American. At age 42, he was the youngest person to lead the city in over 100 years. He enjoyed broad popularity and was seen as a promising and charismatic newcomer.
Garcetti’s early agenda was audacious. His first significant achievement came in 2015, when he signed a law mandating a $15 minimum wage at a time the move had not yet caught on elsewhere in the country (it took until 2016 for California Governor Jerry Brown to follow suit). That same year, Garcetti was also instrumental in a successful bid to bring the Summer Olympic Games to Los Angeles in 2028.
But it was the successful passage of Measure M, a 2016 ballot proposition that will generate $120 billion to expand L.A.’s public transit and bike networks that became Garcetti’s major achievement. Supporters and critics alike agree that his ability to compel his electorate to vote for a sales tax increase was a surprising feat. Plus, this one had no “sunset clause,” meaning, it never expires; it also eliminated a previous sunset clause from a 2008 transit measure, which many saw as an even harder sell. But Garcetti did it, and Measure M passed with 71% of the vote.
“If it had failed, he would have been blamed for it,” said longtime city leader Zev Yaroslavsky, who served Los Angeles for more than 40 years on both the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors.
“Garcetti made the decision to go for broke and he succeeded. Today, no county in America has so much local money invested in building transportation infrastructure as LA County has.”
Measure M cemented Garcetti’s status as a mayor who could get things done. Later that spring, he was handily re-elected to a second term with more than 80% of the vote. But he squandered some of that goodwill when he spent one-third of that year outside of California, generating speculation he was considering a Presidential run. In 2018, he made numerous visits to primary states, including at least two to [New Hampshire] (https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-garcetti-new-hampshire-20180513-story.html). before ultimately abandoning his plans.
His lasting achievement with measure M, however, reportedly has the Biden transition team considering Garcetti for Secretary of Transportation.
“He has a considerable record under his belt in that regard,” Yaroslavsky said. “Lots of transit lines are under construction, the subway, the people mover to the airport. One of the biggest public works projects in the country right now is the LAX master plan. That is by far the biggest transit project in the country.”
But other observers of Garcetti’s transit policy give him mixed reviews. They point to choking traffic issues, which persist even with increased public transit. And they say the mayor shies away from taking the side of pedestrians and cyclists over the city’s dominant motorists.
“This is not a risk-taking mayor,” said one activist engaged in a range of municipal issues who demanded anonymity to protect their involvement. “This is a risk-averse mayor.”
Early in his administration, Garcetti appointed Seleta Reynolds General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), a move seen as imaginative and progressive given Reynolds’s reputation as an advocate for transit alternatives to automobiles.
With Reynolds at the helm, the city signed on to Vision Zero, an international plan to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2035 (in L.A., traffic-related deaths outnumber deaths from gun violence). To that end, the city added bike lanes, implemented “slow streets,” widened sidewalks and added pedestrian plazas and “parklets” (the expansion of a sidewalk into on-street parking).
But reducing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes met with stiff resistance, and critics say that’s when Garcetti backed down.
“That’s the kind of political calculus that the mayor makes over and over again,” said the activist. “When it looks like it’s possible to score a win, the mayor will exert his political authority. But if he feels like it’s a political risk, he doesn’t stick his neck out.”
Few political issues in L.A. are considered riskier than tackling homelessness, another area in which Angelenos are divided on the mayor’s track record. Some say Garcetti has failed to marshall the political capital necessary to bring the problem under control. Others give him credit for trying.
During his second term, Garcetti went to great lengths to put the homelessness issue out front, calling it “the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time.” But despite his best efforts — which have included ambitious housing plans and a commitment of resources — the problem is only getting worse.
At present, L.A. has the largest unsheltered homeless population in the country. Contributing factors include high housing costs, inadequate treatment for mental illness and drug abuse, low wages and a shortage of affordable housing. In June 2020, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) counted more than 66,000 people living on the streets of L.A. County, a 13% increase over the previous year. Add in the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, and the problem now seems to replicate as quickly as the coronavirus.
The failure to contain homelessness is even more puzzling in light of the considerable sums being thrown at the problem. Los Angeles voters have twice supported measures to fund homelessness and housing initiatives. Proposition HHH, passed in 2016, provides $1.2 billion to build thousands of units of supportive housing over a decade. Measure H, passed in 2017, provides $355 million per year for homelessness support services and short term housing.
But the ever-increasing problem still requires additional support. In 2018, Garcetti partnered with the Los Angeles City Council to declare an emergency shelter crisis and launched his “Bridge Home” program, which set aside $20 million from the city budget to establish 1,500 emergency shelter beds for up to 6,000 people. But the pace of building proved slow; a year later, only one 45-bed shelter had been built.
While the mayor may be faulted for his lack of success, it’s not for lack of effort. Last year, LAHSA housed more than 22,000 people, more than double the number of housing placements since 2014. And yet, genuine efforts to place the homeless in permanent supportive housing cannot keep pace with the amount of newly homeless spilling onto the sidewalks each month.
“He’s trying to change the paradigm and I give him credit for that,” Yaroslavsky said. “But it’s a big problem. It’s a tidal wave.”
“I don’t think homelessness is his fault,” said Jim Newton, a veteran local journalist and lecturer in public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “I’m one of the people who wanted to see him be more ambitious and swing higher. It’s just one of these infinitely complicated problems. So I give him credit, but I also don’t believe he can point to much evidence that he’s succeeded.”
And that was before the pandemic hit.
Now, Garcetti is grappling with a city in crisis on almost every front. COVID-19 cases are again skyrocketing. The safer-at-home order the mayor implemented last March may have saved lives, but it also compounded homelessness, plunged the city into an economic crisis and led to a massive budget shortfall.
“From my perspective, he’s been fiscally irresponsible,” Humphreville said. “During the good years he could have put all sorts of money into reserves. Instead, we went from having a surplus of $200 million to a deficit of $1.2 billion. So he really screwed the pooch on that one.”
While some of the city’s deficit is related to losses incurred during the pandemic, it also stems from labor contracts the mayor granted to police and firefighter unions prior to the pandemic, when the city’s financial outlook was rosier. When Garcetti’s presumptuous budget met with the economic havoc wreaked by COVID19, the city fell deep into the red.
In September, the Los Angeles City Council was forced to declare a fiscal emergency in order to furlough the city’s 16,000 civilian employees. The budget shortfall ahead of the next fiscal year is estimated to land anywhere between $400 and $700 million.
What better time, then, for a personnel scandal?
The latest drama to consume City Hall involves one of Garcetti’s top aides, Rick Jacobs, who has been accused of sexual misconduct. Over the summer, LAPD officer Matthew Garza filed a suit accusing Jacobs of unwanted kissing and touching. Though Jacobs stepped down, Garza’s attorneys have stepped up, and last month filed a motion demanding Garcetti’s testimony. Observers say any implication the mayor was aware of Jacobs’s behavior could hurt Garcetti’s chances for a cabinet appointment. Imagine if a Republican-led Senate decided to make an example of him during a confirmation hearing.
“The difficulty in leaving now is that L.A. is in such a difficult situation,” Newton said of the potential appointment. If accepted, Garcetti would have to end his second term early.
And that’s just fine, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University Los Angeles. “No mayor who gets picked up to go to Washington can say ‘Everything is taken care of, I’m free to go.’ The city’s got tons of problems and it’s gonna take years to solve them. But it’s not like Garcetti got elected and then ran off.”
Some say an appointed position where Garcetti would not be accountable to an electorate might better suit his disposition.
“It’s a very different thing to be cabinet secretary and implement policies than it is to be a politician who has to court the will of the people,” the source involved in city issues said.
“Maybe Los Angeles will fare even better with Garcetti as cabinet secretary, which opens up the possibility for new city leadership, than for things to continue as they are.”
Does Eric Garcetti deserve D.C.?