Maybe It’s Time to Stop Underestimating Eric Garcetti

Mayor Eric Garcetti and his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, at his election night celebration. 

DTLA - Something powerful and strange is going on with Mayor Eric Garcetti.

I don’t mean anything untoward — he’s not sparking any scandals or generating controversy. Day in and day out he operates in a methodical, analytics-driven, check-all-the-boxes manner. He’s a thoroughly modern mayor: young, telegenic, a champion of progressive causes, a Friend of Obama and a whiz at social media. 

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Rather, I’m talking about the perception of Garcetti. Or, make that, perceptions. There are two, and the lake separating them is pretty wide.

Local political observers, including a lot of journalists, have been routinely critical of Garcetti. Some cite bubbling city issues such as rising crime and worsening homelessness. Others tag personality and leadership traits, like Garcetti’s penchant for avoiding controversy and refusing to ruffle any feathers.

However, as we learned on election day, the people adore him. Garcetti won a stunning 81% of the vote, a level of mayoral support perhaps not seen in Los Angeles since gentlemen wore bowler hats. If you want you can point to super-low turnout on March 7, or claim, rightly, that he ran against unknowns, but Garcetti still got four out of every five civic-minded Angelenos to Inkavote his name. By comparison, Antonio Villaraigosa earned only 55% of the vote in his 2009 re-election, and that came against an equally weak field. Popular mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan never came close to Garcetti levels.

Winners and Losers of the March 7 Election

Garcetti’s critics are not necessarily wrong, but his election day stampede says a lot about his political present and, perhaps more importantly, his future. It also sends a message to everyone who watches this stuff: Maybe it’s time to stop underestimating Eric Garcetti.

The Anti-Antonio

Garcetti took office in 2013 after beating Wendy Greuel. His campaign and early mayoral moves were carefully orchestrated. As I wrote a few months after his inauguration, his strategy might well have been labeled “Don’t Pull a Villaraigosa.” Garcetti recognized the widespread dissatisfaction with AnVil’s administration, where a thirst for flash, headlines and personal gain, along with an extramarital affair, turned the office into a dumpster fire. Garcetti’s “Back to Basics” platform was both an agenda and a city prescription.

The 10 Most Interesting Moments of Garcetti's First 50 Days

It fit the wants of Angelenos at the time. It was also, for worse or better, pretty boring. And whether it was cause or coincidence, it bled into a low-key leadership style where observers kept trying to figure out what Garcetti was all about. 

There were achievements, which I’ll get to soon, but the Mayor of Instagram — the title of a show of Garcetti’s social media photos at Gary Leonard’s Take My Picture gallery — sometimes came off as the Mayor of Milquetoast. Whereas Villaraigosa aimed big and often fell on his face, as with his early effort to assume control of the LAUSD, Garcetti seemed risk-averse and only reached for what appeared easy to grasp.

Check Out Eric Garcetti's Instagram Show

Hence the criticism, and even if he has become a bit less cautious, it’s not like he’s a political James Bond. 

The Los Angeles Times gave Garcetti a 2015 mid-term report card grade of a C, and the first four words of its recent mayoral endorsement headline were, “There’s room for improvement.” It was similar at the Daily News, which titled its February endorsement “Re-elect L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti — and Demand Better.” Los Angeles Magazine last summer went deep trying to get a read on him in a story titled “Who Is the Real Eric Garcetti?” I’ve become a broken record writing that he needs to use the bully pulpit and become a capital letter “L” Leader. 

In the blogosphere he’s gotten far worse, but everyone gets far worse in the blogosphere.

The next couple years should be interesting. Garcetti has benefitted from a sunny economy and hasn’t faced a disaster, whether of the recession or earthquake variety. That could change at any time, testing his leadership skills. Life could also get sticky if crime and homelessness continue to rise. 

Pay extra-special attention to city finances — pension commitments and a projected $224 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year could become a political sinkhole sucking in every elected official. Beware if the optimistic returns the city expects to earn on its investments fall short.

Yet voters this month showed they don’t care about any of that stuff. Garcetti’s election day performance was phenomenal. I dug through the last 20 years of city election results, and saw that almost any time an incumbent faced even token opposition, he or she maxed out at about 75% voter support, and often fared far worse. This is because at least one-quarter of the people are cranky or just don’t trust the government. But there was barely a protest vote against Garcetti.   

Like Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars, people like him. They really like him.

Why? Another well-run campaign helped, but so did a string of victories that have kept him in the news. Garcetti kicked off the effort to boost the minimum wage in Los Angeles, and the City Council pumped up his $13.25-an-hour opening bid to $15 an hour. The mayor helped lead the charge last November for voter passage of Measure M, the Metro sales tax for mass transit construction, and Proposition HHH, a property tax bond to build housing for the homeless. He was an early and vocal advocate to bring George Lucas’ $1 billion art museum to Exposition Park, and helped seal the deal with the Star Wars master. He’s kept Los Angeles front-and-center with a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, and while some people worry about the cost of the Games, many others think they’d be a great get for L.A.

Garcetti actually got a triple win on March 7, as his re-election coincided with the voters’ approval of another homelessness-related tax, Measure H, and the absolute destruction of Measure S, the slow-growth initiative. It garnered less than 30% of the vote.

Plus, Garcetti is darn likable, and that counts. Even his critics usually begin with, “I like Eric personally, but….”

All this leads to Garcetti’s future. He’s adeptly refused to commit to serving out his next term, as is his right, and political watchers are asking if he’ll run for governor or the U.S. Senate in 2018, the latter if 83-year-old Dianne Feinstein opts to retire.

The thing is, that’s the wrong question. The right question is, what race does Team Garcetti think he can win?

Right now many dismiss the idea of Garcetti winning a governor’s race against candidates including Villaraigosa, Gavin Newsom and state Treasurer John Chiang. A Senate field is also expected to be cluttered with tough opposition, and Los Angeles candidates rarely fare well in races for California’s top political posts. 

Garcetti has been doubted before, yet he’s never lost a race, going back to the 2001 City Council contest when he started against a big field. The experts have doubts, but maybe his Magic 8-Ball metrics show something most of us don’t see. Plus, he has traveled the country raising money — his financial tentacles touch a lot of wealthy Democrats who are looking for the next big thing.

Don’t sleep on this mayor. After all, no one predicted anything close to the 81% Garcetti got on March 7. And come election day, it’s the votes that count.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017