Thinking Big

Los Angeles
March 2006

The first story about Eric Garcetti in his hometown paper—an L.A. Times feature after he received a 1994 Rhodes Scholarship—compared him favorably to a young Bill Clinton. Funny about that, given Clinton's reputation for strategic resume building—a talent some also recognize in the Los Angeles City Council's piano-playing, blog-savvy new president. While at Oxford, Garcetti phoned Times columnist George Ramos with the scoop that he was leading a student hunger strike to protest California's passage of Proposition 187, the measure intended to cut off most public services for illegal immigrants. As a fourth-generation Angeleno of Mexican heritage, Garcetti said he felt compelled to make a transatlantic statement of solidarity.

It was a canny stroke for a future politico, unspoiled by the detail that Garcetti is, at most, half Latino. It was also a telltale Eric Garcetti moment: authentic in its idealism yet studied enough in execution that you can't help but suspect some big-picture career calculus. Those have come to be prevailing views of Garcetti around City Hall, where at age 35 he is seen as a rising star who champions progressive causes but works well with business leaders and the police. Despite a manner that is gentle and almost studious, Garcetti has fashioned the makings of a national profile second only to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's, and there are those who believe that if he can avoid stumbling, his political ascent could have the highest upside of anyone in the building.

No doubt he is the best educated and most worldly of the bunch. After growing up in Encino and attending the elite Harvard School, Garcetti earned bachelor's and master's degrees in international relations from Columbia and used his Oxford years to study politics. He slogged through Burmese jungles to promote democracy as a student and fought to end female genital mutilation in Ethiopia. He commemorated last Earth Day at an Inuit settlement in arctic Canada, making a symbolic gesture against global warming with Salma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal. Last year he also paid an official visit to Armenia and Georgia with Howard Dean, whom he supported for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, then went to Lebanon, where he helped sign up Beirut as a sister city.

Over New Year's Garcetti delivered a talk in South Carolina at Renaissance Weekend, the off-the-record retreat attended by leaders in politics, business, media, and the arts. The annual gathering's most prominent participants are Bill and Hillary Clinton.

These are the kind of resume entries that help you in national politics but aren't especially useful in the daily grind of presiding over the city council. For that it takes tact, the willingness to keep secrets, and the deftness to cajole an often undisciplined and occasionally churlish group. Garcetti became president by putting together a majority of the 15 members to nudge aside Alex Padilla, who had planned to step down this year anyway to run for the state senate. "I was quite impressed with the way he handled the transition," says political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "He got the votes and quietly took care of business." In January, at his first meeting in charge, Garcetti convened the session on time, at 10 a.m., a feat so rare that a Daily News editorial praised him. Though not blessed with an abundance of power, the presidency comes with side benefits for a person of ambition. When Villaraigosa is out of the state, Garcetti serves as the official face of the city. He also gets the most camera time during the council meetings, which are televised on Channel 35.

When he won his seat in 2001, Garcetti was little known outside Los Angeles progressive circles. He was a 30-year-old professor of politics, diplomacy, and world affairs at Occidental College and had worked behind the scenes in Kathleen Brown's campaign for governor. If voters had heard the name, it was because his father, Gil, had twice been elected district attorney. The densely populated 13th District, which stretches from Hollywood to Atwater Village, is one of the city's poorest, mixing immigrants who speak a hundred different languages with middle-class home owners and urban hipsters. Walking the streets from Little Armenia to Frogtown, Garcetti introduced himself to voters in English and in superbly accented Spanish he picked up from his paternal grandparents. Promising more affordable housing, safer parks, and greater economic justice, Garcetti beat the district's onetime councilman, Mike Woo, in a runoff. Last year he was reelected without opposition.

Because of term limits, just as Garcetti begins his new role as president, he enters the end phase of his council life. What will come next is already a topic of speculation. With Villaraigosa's popularity high, an open race for mayor is not likely until 2013. Positions such as city controller or state legislator don't seem well suited to Garcetti's interests, except as holding spots. People around him think he aspires to national office, which gives an intriguing spin to his decision to quietly join the navy reserve last September. He signed up for an intelligence unit in which his good friend, affordable-housing advocate Sean Burton, serves. (Both men also sit on the board of Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a group of young progressives.) Ensign Garcetti's obligation includes basic officer training in Pensacola, Florida, later this year, plus duty one weekend a month and two weeks each summer. He could be called up to active duty, as happened to several of the unit's officers in January.

"An eight-year commitment when the country is at war is a very serious decision for anyone," Garcetti says, dismissing the suggestion that his newfound calling is politically motivated. He believes in mandatory national service of some kind, he says, although not necessarily in the armed forces. Garcetti says he gained respect for "the application of military science to nonviolent means" when he helped organize the underground democratic resistance in Burma. He also bills being in the navy as an experience that will fill out his knowledge of his country: "The military is one of the few places where all of America comes together."
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Lean, with clean-cut sartorial tastes—he favors gray suits, blue shirts, and red ties—Garcetti is neither charismatic nor wonkish. Sincere and informed is more like it. In conversation he listens intently and smiles easily. Garcetti is the city council's Mr. Cool. He played jazz piano professionally and is composing a musical. He hosts a cable TV cooking show, The Flavors of L.A., drives an electric vehicle, and hangs out online. In 2004, he posted a diary of his week at Slate.com, describing frenzied days shuttling between appointments and admitting that he sometimes changes clothes while an aide drives. "I hope no one will glance over from their car and suddenly see their councilman in his underpants," he wrote the first day.

Revelations of a mildly personal sort also make it onto his blog, reached via ericgarcetti.com. Readers get his reports on favorite restaurants (currently the Brite Spot, Gingergrass, and an Ecuadoran-Italian place on Virgil) and news updates like his on-scene reaction to last year's fatal Metrolink train derailment in Atwater Village. Bloggers who live in his district have learned that Garcetti is apt to pop in with a signed comment to posts about neighborhood issues. "I was somewhat shocked to get such a quick and direct reply from my councilman," says Will Campbell, who posted at blogging.la about a homeless encampment under the Sunset Boulevard bridge in Silver Lake.

Another online subject—and increasingly, a topic in gossip about Garcetti's future—is his partner and unofficial political strategist, Amy Elaine Wakeland. She and Garcetti met at Oxford, where she was a Rhodes scholar from Albion College in Michigan. Both are visible around the district—in his Slate diary, Garcetti wrote of tagging along while Wakeland bought "the world's softest pajamas" at Panty Raid in Silver Lake. Early in the 2004 campaign, they hosted a meet-the-candidate event for Dean at their midcentury-modern home high on a ridge in Echo Park. Wakeland served as the Dean campaign's California political adviser. She also helped manage Garcetti's campaigns. She has held key staff jobs in then-mayor Richard Riordan's school board reform effort and the Progressive Los Angeles Network, a group based at Occidental College that has influenced city policy on affordable housing and other issues. More recently she raised a substantial amount of money while on the honorary board of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a force behind the political resurgence of labor here.

Where Garcetti is calm and devoted to consensus, Wakeland is aggressive. Some see a tendency to be brusque. "She's got a cold edge to her that can be off-putting. They are kind of the odd couple that way," says a denizen of the council's fourth-floor suites in City Hall. Wakeland acknowledges that their personalities are "dramatically different," but she discourages talk that Garcetti relies on her for political guidance. "I offer Eric advice about the decisions he makes, but he makes them all himself." Together they set up two charitable funds at the Santa Monica-based Liberty Hill Foundation to steer contributions to progressive causes. Each makes significant personal donations to Los Angeles organizations and helps guide the social philanthropy of the Roth Family Foundation, which was endowed by Garcetti's maternal grandparents—the founders of Louis Roth Clothes, the city's first unionized garment maker.

Right after he was elected, Garcetti began to mobilize a small army of community organizers who work on neighborhood issues across the district. His Leadership Institute, the council's only such program, has recruited and trained more than 250 residents to push for new parks and stop signs and to demand more respect from the bureaucracy. Many of them, especially recent immigrants, had never voluntarily been in contact with government. "People become shrill in direct proportion to how little power they have," Garcetti says. "We're getting them involved and giving them the power to get things done." The grassroots force came in handy a few years ago when gangs were terrorizing the Toonerville section of Atwater Village. Garcetti flooded the neighborhood with activists who persuaded scared residents to attend a church meeting he led in Spanish. The upshot was new streetlights, greater police presence, and a community that feels safer.

On the council, Garcetti has pursued a liberal agenda and has emphasized reviving Hollywood. He got his colleagues to go on the record in support of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and against the Iraq war. He won the creation of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, which helps newcomers settle in L.A., and guided the city's financing of a trust fund to promote affordable housing. In Hollywood Garcetti has spearheaded construction of apartments for low-income residents and promoted the area's return to prominence as a center of tourism and nightlife. One busy day in January, he read Edward and the Pirates to children at a rebuilt branch library on Ivar Avenue, met with Community Redevelopment Agency staffers to talk about all the office and theater projects under way, then unveiled the Holly Trolley, which gives late-night clubgoers an alternative to paying exorbitant valet parking fees. "Eric has a great vision and supports us," says Bill Harris of the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation.

Garcetti's liberal record as a councilman comes with some moderate twists. He boasts, for example, that many parks in his district have surveillance cameras monitored by the LAPD. He says he got past concerns about civil liberties when he saw cameras in use in England. Plus, such surveillance systems work. Gang crime has gone down, he says.

Garcetti has made connections with business leaders and is considered a friend of the chamber of commerce. This could help him in the future, since anywhere he runs for office is almost certain to be less liberal than the 13th District. He says it's just smart to promote a strong economy. In his first week as council president he stood beside the mayor to present a package of tax reforms that appealed to small businesses. Villaraigosa quipped that Garcetti's eyelids were drooping because they had gone out for dinner and tequila the night before in Hollywood: "We were supporting local businesses."
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Their private get-together at Memphis, the hip new Hollywood Boulevard rib joint, got noticed at City Hall. It showed that Villaraigosa held no lingering resentment over Garcetti's endorsement of Jim Hahn in the last mayoral election. Garcetti didn't extend himself for Hahn, but some people who were loyal to the new mayor felt that Garcetti wasn't one of them. In truth, he had previously written policy briefs for Villaraigosa, and their politics overlap. "It didn't take us much work to become closer friends again," Garcetti said after the night on the town. "Antonio and I instinctively understand each other better than Jim and I."

They agree, for instance, that the future Los Angeles will be more urban, with more high-rise residences and offices. It's a divisive notion for Angelenos already concerned about traffic congestion, but Garcetti contends that the sprawl can accommodate more people if transit lines are developed and care is taken in planning for the increasing density. "We have a responsibility to deal with growth, but it should be smart growth," he says. One Villaraigosa priority he has not yet embraced is a city hall takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Reforms are needed, he says, but it's not clear to him that mayoral control is the best approach. Even so, Garcetti is expected to be one of the mayor's strong allies on the council. "He's built up a record amount of political capital," Garcetti says of Villaraigosa. "The only question is what he does with it."

The same question could be asked about Garcetti and his ambitions. Presiding over the council is a pretty full plate, and it only takes eight votes to depose him if he can't keep his colleagues happy. To help him, Garcetti hired a former Padilla adviser, David Gershwin, as his chief of staff.

As for his aspirations beyond the council, Garcetti's all-things-to-all-people style is attractive politically but requires constant tending. Wakeland insists that the Garcetti she knows is not carefully planning a political future: "He's very in the moment...not strategic at all." Garcetti admits, though, to having felt the tug of public service and social activism since he was in high school. He says his interest in international affairs makes a bid for Congress a natural step. If the right opportunity isn't there, he could take a break from elective office and run a foundation or focus on his music. Pursuing your passions is important, he says, adding that "good policy comes from your head, but good politics comes from your heart."