Less than two years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took the stage at an L.A. Live club to announce a tourism milestone: A record number of visitors were coming to the L.A. region, flocking to the city for its restaurants, art museums and hip neighborhoods.
It marked a high point not just for the city but also for its mayor, who had won a landslide reelection and was riding a wave of interest in L.A. that had Garcetti pitching himself as a possible presidential contender.
Today, the nightclub remains closed because of the pandemic. The nearby Los Angeles Convention Center, which has doubled this year as a field hospital and a staging ground for the National Guard, is now being eyed as a homeless shelter.
Tourism has dried up, homicides are rising, and Garcetti and other political leaders are grappling with plunging revenues for City Hall and the possibility of layoffs of city workers.
While the city is in crisis, Garcetti is also facing a personal crossroads.
If he leaves L.A. for a possible position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration — as there is widespread speculation he might — the mayor would exit the city at a moment of profound crisis.
But if he stays put — and finishes out his two years in office — he could be giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work alongside Biden, a longtime friend. A move to Washington would give him new opportunities for advancement yet also affect his legacy at home.
“It’s risky,” Steven P. Erie, professor emeritus of political science at UC San Diego, said of a situation in which Garcetti leaves for Washington. “It’ll look like he’s abandoning ship. But people do have short memories. People tend to forget, especially if he goes on to bigger and better things. People will blame his successor” for L.A.’s problems.
If presented with an offer, Garcetti would make his choice amid a leftward shift in L.A. politics.
He was seen as a progressive who hiked the city’s minimum wage to $15 during his first term. But in recent years, Garcetti has faced growing attacks from the left for a variety of issues including police funding and policies on homelessness and the environment. And if he stays, those conflicts are only expected to intensify.
Garcetti, who served as a co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign, appears to have few options for higher office in the near future.
He isn’t perceived to be close to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will select a replacement in the U.S. Senate for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and for Sen. Dianne Feinstein if she were to step down early.
A potential run for governor couldn’t happen until 2026.
Garcetti aides didn’t respond to a question about the mayor and a possible Biden appointment. “Mayor Garcetti is focused on the urgent work of our city to stop the spread of COVID-19, confront homelessness and bring back L.A.’s economy,” Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said Wednesday.
Garcetti himself has remained coy, telling KCRW-FM radio listeners this week that he’s “not looking for a new job” but that he’ll “always talk to Joe.”
“He would be foolish not to go to D.C.,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.
Regalado also could see Garcetti working out a deal with Biden to join his administration in 2022 after the mayor’s term ends — a scenario “that depends on how much Biden wants Garcetti and if Garcetti is willing to wait.”
Garcetti is dealing with criticism over his handling of allegations involving a top aide, Rick Jacobs, who is accused of sexually harassing a police officer. Three other men have also said Jacobs touched them or tried to touch them without their consent. Jacobs has denied harassing the officer, and Garcetti has said he didn’t witness any harassment.
The police officer’s lawyer is seeking to take Garcetti’s deposition, and it is unclear how long the case will go on.
Garcetti was reelected with 81% of the vote three years ago, a time when L.A. was undergoing a cultural renaissance and was on an economic upswing.
That optimistic chapter feels far away today, blotted out by a pandemic that has ravaged low-income neighborhoods and threatened more Angelenos with homelessness.
City Hall faces a dire financial picture that’s been exacerbated by generous labor contracts approved by Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council.
One city report expects a projected revenue gap of up to $600 million, and it’s unclear whether federal aid will arrive. The City Council has already offered buyouts to some employees and is setting the stage for furloughs for others in January.
Given the magnitude of the financial and health crises facing the city, “If I were Garcetti, I’d feel really conflicted,” said former City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who served on the council from 1987 to 2003, representing parts of South L.A., the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
“I would feel obligated to the city,” she said, adding, “I’m not sure I’d feel obligated to sacrifice an opportunity that looks very attractive and goes beyond the two years I have left.”
The mayor is serving a longer-than-usual second term because of a one-time change in election dates, making it more acceptable for him to exit early, Erie said.
No L.A. mayor in recent years has managed to vault to higher office. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lost his 2018 bid to become governor, and Mayor Tom Bradley failed twice in his effort to get the office in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the next L.A. mayor’s race is already underway, with candidates such as City Atty. Mike Feuer raising money. Galanter said that as candidates begin jostling for attention next year, Garcetti’s status may diminish.
“No one is going to be paying too much attention to him,” Galanter said. “He’s not going to have a lot of maneuvering room. He already doesn’t because of the financial crisis, but it’s going to be worse.”
To be sure, a broad spectrum of people would like to see Garcetti move on. Activists want new leadership on the homelessness crisis and transportation, while his allies say that having him in a Biden administration could help Los Angeles.
At the same time, the political landscape around Garcetti appears to be shifting.
Dermot Givens, a political consultant, pointed to the wins by progressive candidates in last week’s local elections.
The mayor is now seen as more of a centrist Democrat, Givens said.
Garcetti backed Councilmen David Ryu and Herb Wesson, who both lost their races to more progressive opponents for City Council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, respectively. Garcetti switched his endorsement to former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón after backing incumbent L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in the primary, a shift that happened after nationwide protests calling for criminal justice reforms.
“The losses really put a question mark on his future political power,” Givens said. “He’s got to see which way the wind is blowing, like we all do.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.