DTLA - You don’t need psychic abilities to read the tea leaves in the cup Eric Garcetti is sipping from: After his triumphant visit last week to Lima, Peru, to lock down the 2028 Summer Olympics for Los Angeles, and an August trip to the presidential battleground state of New Hampshire to campaign for a mayor no one has ever heard of, followed by cocktails with some big-bucks political backers in the Hamptons, Garcetti is clearly looking beyond the horizon of Southern California.
Add a June visit to the swing state of Wisconsin and those leaves become even more defined: The bilingual, telegenic, ethnically diverse Garcetti is casting himself as a progressive political wunderkind, and a 21st century antidote to the Washington wreck that is Donald Trump.
Eric Garcetti is running for president in 2020.
Unless of course he’s not.
What in the world is Garcetti up to? Don’t ask the second-term mayor, because he’s been asked dozens of times already, and on each occasion he offers lines about focusing on his job in Los Angeles, which may be true, but that’s not the point. It’s a classic non-answer answer, which is both his prerogative and the right move for the moment.
What matters is the behind-the-scenes positioning, and if Garcetti dreams of moving into the White House in January 2021, or some time after that, then it’s hard to find a better strategy than the one he’s working. Securing the Olympics gives him an international bounce. Additionally, he has spun himself to the forefront of issues important to blue state voters, including immigration, housing and hiking the minimum wage.
He’s broadening his base, in the parlance of political strategists. He’s in the media outlets you expect, as well as places you wouldn’t: A cushy April article in Vogue described him as “a fit, square-jawed, gently graying 46-year-old,” which someone should borrow for a Tinder profile. In August, Garcetti and his Olympics buddy Casey Wasserman were guests on “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” hosted by the sports and pop culture figure who claims nearly 6 million Twitter followers. At least some of those people vote.
So here’s Garcetti, running a city and running around the globe, pushing policy and parlaying his persona into contender status. He’s not only playing both sides of the fence, he’s playing the area under and above the fence, and may be delving into fence-ish dimensions we’re not even aware exist.
Does Garcetti’s performance as mayor indicate he could fare well in a bigger job? That depends on who you ask. Supporters point to his experience, his smarts, his connections and his use of 21st century technologies. Detractors note that during his mayoralty homelessness in Los Angeles has spiked, and that the city just rolled over in negotiations with the union that represents most Department of Water & Power workers. He still gets criticized sometimes for a perceived lack of toughness.
Garcetti has several notable victories, but in some ways he is untested. He’s been fortunate to serve as mayor during a national bull market. He’s yet to face the kind of harrowing challenge that defines the leadership and legacy of a big-city mayor, like Richard Riordan after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, or Rudy Giuliani post-9/11.
Still, Garcetti understands the citizenry like few L.A. politicians of recent decades, and he has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had grand ambitions too, but Garcetti has avoided the AnVil goof of essentially thumbing his nose at L.A. while positioning himself for higher office. Garcetti’s early “Back to Basics” agenda, in the wake of Villaraigosa’s mostly failed flash, fits what the city wanted.
Could Garcetti win the Democratic nomination for president? The ascendancy of Trump reveals that in politics, the impossible is now possible. On the other hand, the national Democratic lineup is like a tank of piranhas ready to turn on each other. The Washington Post this month put Garcetti 14th on its list of possible nominees, just ahead of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and behind figures including Bernie Sanders (number one on the list), Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Cory Booker. He even trailed a couple Californians, Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Jerry Brown.
That said, the fact that Garcetti has managed to get himself in the conversation is brilliant. You can’t jump to the head of the class if you’re not in the class in the first place. A lot of Democrats would kill to be where he is now.
Easy Stuff, Hard Stuff
Being a potential presidential candidate is easier than being an actual candidate, and if Garcetti envisions running, he’ll probably milk this will-he-won’t-he? stage for a while. Right now Garcetti can enjoy the fruits of breathless speculation while raising his profile.
The moment he declares his candidacy, however, the hard stuff starts. He’ll have to raise money and position himself against other candidates. He’ll have to raise money and assemble a national campaign staff. He’ll have to raise money and pretend he cares deeply about the people of Iowa. He’ll have to raise money and, oh yeah, still run L.A.
Garcetti has an advantage in timing. He earned an astonishing 81% of the vote in his re-election in March, and the shift of L.A. election dates gives him a 5 1/2-year term. The dude’s in office until 2022!
That gives him a free ride for anything he wants to do. He can run for president, lose and fall back on his day job, with the only casualty being other people’s money. Yet even a loss would likely increase his name recognition and enhance the Garcetti brand.
So where’s Garcetti going? Here are some options.
Mr. President: Garcetti has to know that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a long shot, that people such as Sanders, Warren and Joe Biden have a broader base, and even if Garcetti wins here there’s that pesky fight against Trump or another Republican. But again, there’s more upside than downside. Running and then dropping out after some early primaries still means more people get to know him.
Mr. Vice President: Here’s where things get interesting. While Garcetti may not be top-of-the-ticket material, his presence as a youth-appealing complement to an older, nationally experienced candidate could be appealing. The Spanish fluency helps. Is he ready for the gig? That’s beside the point — it’s all about capturing states like Wisconsin and winning the election.
Mr. Secretary of Whatever: Say Garcetti runs for president and fails. It still puts him in close contact with the eventual nominee, and if that gal or guy emerges victorious in November 2020, Garcetti could wind up in a cabinet position. He’s spent years making inroads in Washington, D.C. It could pay off this way. Or not.
Mr. Governor: Garcetti still gets mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Jerry Brown, though it seems unlikely. Gavin Newsom has raised a gazillion dollars and state Treasurer John Chiang also has a serious war chest. Villaraigosa is in the race, and though he’s past his prime he’d still compete with Garcetti for L.A. votes. Expect Garcetti to keep his powder dry for a better option.
Mr. Senator: Here’s where things get interesting again. No one knows if Dianne Feinstein will run for another term. She may not know. If she runs, she wins. If she doesn’t, the June 2018 primary means there’s a short window to raise money and organize a campaign. Garcetti has friends with big checkbooks and can pull in millions quickly. He could face candidates such as state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Léon or moneybags Tom Steyer, but Garcetti would be in the game with enviable name ID. Like Jon Snow I know nothing, but this is my personal guess: that Feinstein says no to another round, and Garcetti steps in and wins a quick and hard-fought campaign.
Then he’s Sen. Garcetti, and if you go back before Trump, a first-term senator named Barack Obama became president.
Mr. Mayor: If none of the above happen, Garcetti still runs the nation’s second-biggest city. That’s not a bad ace in the hole.