Joe Buscaino Makes His Case

DTLA—It may turn out to be nothing, just remarks by a politician in a city replete with remarks by politicians. Then again, Councilman Joe Buscaino’s brief broadside directed at Los Angeles’ second-highest elected official may go down as a first, very early strike in what will ultimately be a wham-bam 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race.

Buscaino’s sortie came at Los Angeles Downtown News’ party last month for the just-published Best Of Downtown issue. It was a Tuesday evening, and Buscaino stood to the side as City Attorney Mike Feuer addressed a crowd sipping post-work champagne and Mai Tais. Feuer, who has said he is considering running for mayor after Eric Garcetti is termed out (though the implications of a July FBI raid of the City Attorney’s office remain unknown) withstood the interruption of a heckler and lifted his voice. He connected with the room. He earned a hearty round of applause, then departed.

FBI Raid 2: Electric Boogaloo

I don’t know what thoughts zipped through Buscaino’s mind in the brief period before he followed Feuer. The two have been on opposite sides of what is known as the Mitchell case, which concerns the possessions of homeless individuals; Feuer supported settling a lawsuit filed against the city, and while the agreement stanches a potential hefty payout should the city lose, it also allows homeless individuals to keep more items on the sidewalks of Downtown. Many community groups were furious at the settlement and wanted the case taken to trial, risks be darned. Buscaino was one of just two council members, along with José Huizar, who voted against settling.

Los Angeles politicians rarely criticize each other in public, even obliquely. When it was Buscaino’s turn to speak, he chucked protocol.

Buscaino referenced the heckler. Then he mentioned Feuer before thundering, “He wants to settle homelessness. I want to solve it.”

And with that Buscaino was off, saying he was sorry he couldn’t get eight council votes to reject settling the Mitchell case. He picked up momentum and zipped into something that sounded like a stump speech. With his dress shirt untucked and his sleeves rolled up — council was in summer recess — he zoomed.

“I’m advocating for you because you deserve it,” Buscaino pronounced. “You’re living here, you’re investing here, and people are visiting here, and just call on me to be with you, and you know that you have a friend in City Hall, and what I’m going to do is to continue to fight for you, to restore our public safety, our public health, and our quality of life here in DTLA.”

It was cliché central but it resonated, and the crowd reacted with enthusiasm — Buscaino won the room. When I caught up to him 20 minutes later he sported a huge grin.

“You sounded like someone who’s running for mayor,” I remarked, and Buscaino gave a huge open-mouthed faux-shocked expression. He appeared both proud of what he had said, and amazed that he’d said it.

‘Way Too Early’

So is Buscaino running for mayor? Many local political observers believe he is, though two weeks after the Best of Downtown event, when he appeared at a luncheon at The Palm hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, he wouldn’t cop to it.

“It’s way too early,” he said when asked about a potential candidacy. “I do know that in 2022 there will be a host of candidates. I’m just focused right now on continuing to deliver for my district and my main goal is to solve homelessness in my district right now. So I’m not committing to any one particular office.”

That’s the answer he is supposed to give, and if Buscaino has ambitions of following Garcetti, you can’t blame him for playing it close to the vest. It’d be goofy to announce a mayoral campaign in the heat of early August, two-and-half years before the primary.

The Rise and Fall of Ericarus Garcetti

Still, if you gawk at political tea leaves, there are indicators that the former LAPD senior lead officer has mayoral thoughts. At the Palm luncheon he mentioned that he is looking at authoring a parks bond for the 2020 ballot, and if there’s a surefire way to curry favor with voters, it’s to establish a record of being proactive on creating green space. The only thing that polls better than being in favor of parks is being in favor of puppies.

Buscaino also mentioned that he is slated to be the next president of the National League of Cities (he’s currently first vice president of the body) and though most people have never heard of the organization, it’s a post that fits on a political resume.

Buscaino spent the first 20 minutes of the Palm luncheon detailing his accomplishments since taking office in 2012. It was rote stuff, and though he mentioned infrastructure, public safety and keeping human jobs amid robot-powered automation at the Port of Los Angeles, it felt like he was going through the paces. He lacked flair.

Then he switched topics.

Flip the Switch

Watching Buscaino grow animated when he began talking about homelessness made me wonder if someone had crept up and flipped a secret switch between his shoulder blades, or if his iced tea had been spiked with pure adrenaline. He eyes flashed and his voice rose. Game on.

In front of the crowd of about 55 power players, Buscaino referenced the trio of emergency shelters now being built in his district and detailed the NIMBYism he encountered when pushing safe parking zones and other projects. His own emotion turned into a boulder rolling downhill and he became even more alive; he referenced how others might criticize him, even if no one in the room was actually doing it.

“You can’t tell me I’m not compassionate about this issue,” he declared. “So don’t give me that nonsense, of ‘he’s a former cop. Not compassionate. He wants to get rid of the homeless.’ No. As I mentioned earlier, our own service providers cannot reach these souls.”

Buscaino’s display didn’t seem to be for show. Ironically, one of the few other local politicians I’ve seen get this intense when discussing homelessness has been Feuer; I’ve watched him seethe at a press conference about the “dumping” of a homeless patient by a hospital, and I’ve heard the City Attorney detail a lengthy list of thoughtful initiatives his office has undertaken to address myriad elements of the homelessness crisis. Buscaino and Feuer may stand on opposite sides of Mitchell, but they’re both deeply invested in combatting homelessness and have been more solutions-oriented than many politicians.

If Buscaino wants to be mayor, the big question may be, will enough people care? Few outside his 15th District know him, and the thin membrane that connects his home base of San Pedro with the bulk of Los Angeles further removes him from the public mindset. He’s adept with social media and his office has crafted some sharp videos, but I’d wager that most Angelenos can’t pronounce his name (not his first name; “Joe” is pretty easy). I’d also wager that if you mentioned San Pedro without any context, at least 54% of registered voters would think it is a standalone city and not part of L.A.

If Buscaino runs, he’ll likely face a stacked field. In addition to Feuer, many expect powerful County Supervisor and Eighth District City Council candidate Mark Ridley-Thomas to run. There’s also an expectation that former state Senate President Kevin de Leon will run for mayor if he wins his current quest for the 14th District City Council seat. Everyone will be watching mall master Rick Caruso to see if he jumps into the race.

For Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Big Move, a Big Fight and a Big Warning

The point is, there are a lot of players who could gobble up a voting bloc. Buscaino’s path could be difficult, and winning San Pedro won’t propel him into the runoff.

Then again, the primary is not until March 2022, and anything can happen. That’s precisely why you don’t declare your intentions this early.

One can also ask, is mayor his best next step? There may not be a better gig in city government, but given his deep law enforcement background and community connections, Buscaino could theoretically swing for L.A. County Sheriff in 2022. Alex Villanueva has been a roller coaster since being elected last year and the local political establishment will be desperately looking for a viable alternative to get behind. The charismatic Buscaino could be that person.

At this point, Joe Buscaino is a guy to watch. Time and politics will tell if he’s more than that.

Copyright 2019 Los Angeles Downtown News