Looking to avoid a repeat of 2016, Democratic presidential prospects are road-testing everything—economic populism, identity politics, heartland likability, social media dexterity. A front-runner has yet to emerge. As a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found, a majority of voters expressed excitement about “somebody entirely new” over Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or even Robert “Beto” O’Rourke.
Could Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti fill that role? No sitting mayor has ever reached the White House, and only three former mayors—Andrew Johnson (Greeneville, Tennessee), Grover Cleveland (Buffalo, New York), and Calvin Coolidge (Northampton, Massachusetts)—have made it. But if he runs, Garcetti, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, cradle of Los Angeles County’s middle class, the son of a Mexican-Italian father and Jewish mother, could have a chance. (His father is Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney who oversaw the prosecution of O.J. Simpson for double homicide.)
Garcetti followed a promising path to political success. He studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (where he met his Midwestern-born wife), earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia, taught international affairs at California colleges, served as a Naval Intelligence Officer, and even became an accomplished jazz pianist. In 2001, he won a seat on L.A.’s city council, ending his tenure as council president when elected mayor in 2013. In 2017, Garcetti was reelected, and he received early attention, along with praise for his affability and consensus-building, in national profiles and interviews. Last year, he visited electoral proving grounds in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
An early acolyte of Barack Obama, Garcetti once remarked that Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope, “felt like it was my own brain talking.” In 2008, Garcetti campaigned for Obama, and he co-chaired the president’s California campaign in 2012. (At one point, in an Oval Office meeting, Obama offered Garcetti a job, but L.A.’s city council president chose to stay put.) In Obama-like fashion, Garcetti made his national debut at the 2016 Democratic convention, where he highlighted his lineage, mixing bilingual slogans with a message that pragmatic problem-solving could unite the country. “America doesn’t need a political pyromaniac for president,” he said.
Currently, though, Garcetti barely registers in polls, and his candidacy would face formidable obstacles. His center-left governance—cutting business taxes while raising the minimum wage—aligns more with Bill Clinton-era New Democrat policies than with the current party’s nascent socialism. He leads a city that stands as a dystopian negation of progressive ideals, with a housing crisis, rampant inequality, paralyzing traffic, and a homelessness epidemic that has been called the “worst human catastrophe in America.” L.A.’s middle class is fleeing, and its public schools are in crisis, as its 30,000-strong teachers’ union strikes for the first time in nearly 30 years. As a sitting mayor, Garcetti must balance his job demands with a punishing primary calendar—and the Democratic National Committee’s reformed delegate process could make things even more challenging in that regard. California’s earlier primary, which has increased its influence, could prove heated, with Senator Kamala Harris an anticipated candidate.
On the plus side is Garcetti’s message of unity. “We’re the same as Iowa,” Garcetti proclaimed at a Sacramento press conference last year. “These divisions that there’s the heartland and the coast to me are B.S.” In an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, Garcetti noted that the Central Valley has “a lot of bus drivers, nurses, people struggling with the same issues” as those affecting the heartland, “but we have the ability, I think, to give a vision of belonging that right now a lot of Americans don’t feel.” Garcetti’s congenial temperament would dramatically contrast not only with Trump’s combative persona but also with that of many of his Democratic rivals.
Since George W. Bush’s presidency, unconventional presidential candidates have prevailed—a mixed-race first-term U.S. senator, a populist celebrity. Could a mayor of America’s second-largest city, in a state that ranks as the world’s fifth-largest economy, be next? Time will tell whether, in a political climate dominated by anger, Garcetti’s more conciliatory message resonates with voters.
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