Candidate Closeup: Eric Garcetti

Listen to an audio story from Annenberg Radio News

imageWe’re probably going to see a lot more of Eric Garcetti.

He served on Los Angeles City Council for more than a decade. The son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti is only 42 years old, the second-youngest among the five leading candidates. He is expected to finish in one of the top two spots in the mayoral primary election March 5.

Garcetti is second in fundraising to City Controller Wendy Greuel, but he leads narrowly in polls. He’s been endorsed by a host of local leaders, including movie stars, unions, La Opinion and the LA Times.

“Eric Garcetti shows the most potential to lead LA into a more sustainable and confident future,” the Feb. 17 endorsement read

When he Times says Garcetti has the most potential, however, it isn’t exactly enthusiastic. Its endorsement said none of the candidates stand out. Garcetti was City Council president for almost six years, and of course he bears some responsibility for the city’s current economic condition. But the editorial board says he’s helping solve those economic problems as well.

The Bureau of Street Services rates Garcetti’s District higher than any other. And the number of parks in CD13 has tripled since his election.

image“To be a successful mayor, you have to bring people together across geographic lines, across political lines,” Garcetti said. “I happen to be a Democrat, but you’re not a Democrat or Republican first. You’ve got to fix a pothole. You have to help a business get started up.”

Collaboration is one of Garcetti’s major selling points. He pitches himself as a universally accessible politician: Mexican, Italian and Jewish by blood, raised in the San Fernando Valley, representing Hollywood and speaking fluent Spanish.

“I am an LA kid, born and bred, fourth generation, a product of this city, a mutt. Mixed cultures came together like only in LA,” Garcetti said.

That universality is what Angeline Chen thinks makes Garcetti a valuable regional leader. She’s an immigration lawyer who’s organized fundraisers for Garcetti among Republicans and film-industry workers.

“I have some Republican friends also supporting him, and it makes sense, because he is very pro-business and very socially conscious at the same time,” Chen said.

Garcetti isn’t totally pro-business. He fought the installation of a Wal-Mart in Chinatown, saying that unless the neighborhood’s residents called for the store themselves, the imposition was unjustified.

He has also cut the city’s payroll. In 2009, he oversaw legislation pushing more than 2,000 city workers into early retirement, and the next year he supported layoffs for another 200 people. He supports raising the city’s retirement age from 55 to 60. As a result, his list of public worker union endorsements is only about half as long as that of his leading rival, Wendy Greuel.

Still, Garcetti has been accused of being too conciliatory within City Hall. Detractors say he’s too responsive to political shifts on the Council, and that he seldom defends positions that might cause arguments.

Longtime city reporter Ron Kaye says Garcetti might not understand how to run the city politically.

“Eric, on the other hand, is a guy who has a sort of piety about him,” Kaye said. “You know, he’s declared that the City Council is a “temple of democracy” when it’s hard to say that… when money wins almost every contest, when outsiders have very little chance.

And Kaye thinks Garcetti’s willingness to compromise makes the candidate weaker than his more embattled rivals, like Jan Perry.

“He’s a smart guy, no one would suggest he isn’t, but the system itself is so powerful,” Kaye said.

Garcetti has also worked closely with outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The mayor and I have worked extremely well together, he’s a friend,” Garcetti said, but he doesn’t see that relationship as a hindrance. Unlike other candidates, who describe LA as a corrupt, broken city mired in near-bankruptcy, Garcetti speaks with optimism. He thinks we’re on the right track, if a little behind schedule.

“I don’t have super critical words for the mayor,” Garcetti said. “I think he’s laid the table in certain areas, but we can greatly accelerate in, for instance, green jobs.”

Garcetti isn’t a polarizing figure. But for voters like South LA resident Siziki Allen, his long track record alone is a reason to vote against him.

“What did you sustain in those eleven years that you can still build upon, versus always going back and starting from scratch? You keep saying ‘new day’—it’s like every day,” Allen said.

But if voters continue to like Garcetti as much as polls say they do now, he’s expected to advance to the runoff election, where he’ll have two more months to persuade residents like Allen.

Aaron Schrank contributed to this report.

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