L.A. Mayor Garcetti's First 100 Days Portend a Shift in Governing

Published in Frontier Magazine

Written by Karen Ocamb

Glancing at the photo of former Los Angeles mayors Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa uniting hands with Mayor Eric Garcetti on Inauguration Day at City Hall, an abstract metaphor emerges, suggesting a new dialectic movement to shift the way government works, business is done and citizens are engaged in the city of Los Angeles. Hahn was quiet, shy, lawyerly—more politically conservative than many in his Democratic Party and even his family dynasty. Villaraigosa was Hahn’s counterpoint—gregarious, liberal, an up-from-the-streets union-centric politician with national ambitions.

Garcetti is the fortuitous synthesis moving forward—the Oxford scholar with a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University who “cut his teeth as an activist working on issues of equality and civil rights” in ACT UP/New York and who today is a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve Information Dominance Corps working on naval intelligence. Philosophically and concretely, Garcetti represents a new direction, a gusto for rethinking what is—with a fidelity and deep sense of duty to the nobility of public service.

The whole atmosphere around Garcetti is different. Unlike the steely coldness of Hahn or the stratospheric rock star status of Villaraigosa, Garcetti is imminently approachable. Despite almost 100 days as mayor, his office is unadorned, almost Zen-like, a clean, paperless desk with a laptop as the central focus. On his bookshelves proudly sits a model of a concrete ‘X’—a model of the design for the 1960s-era American Cement Building across from MacArthur Park—and a book featuring acid rocker Jimmy Hendrix on the cover in open-mouthed ecstasy. The mayor says the bookshelves will be filled with things given him by others as he fixes a reporter a cup of coffee from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which he proudly announces is headquartered in L.A. This quietly breathtaking Aquarian act of humility is emblematic of this young mayor’s character. Eric Garcetti is profoundly aware that his power derives from the governed—citizens who are his equals and deserve the best the city can offer.

In his first 100 days, Mayor Garcetti has already brought city government to the people in a number of ways, such as his Government 101 classes and, on Sept. 5, walking door to door in Venice with gay Councilmember Mike Bonin and roughly 200 neighbors in the 11th Council District.

“Mayor Garcetti's neighborhood walk with me, going door to door in Venice, captures perfectly the tone he is setting and the way he is governing—refreshingly open, remarkably accessible and focused intently on getting back to basics and delivering neighborhood services. He is a natural at the front door and in the living room, discussing potholes, affordable housing and people's dreams for their families,” Bonin, who represents the 11th Council District, told Frontiers. “It's an exciting time to be in government, and you can genuinely feel that we are on the verge of big and great things.”

From an LGBT-specific perspective, Garcetti immediately jumped in and replaced Villaraigosa on the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry campaign.

“Eric is doing a great job! It’s no surprise to me that Eric was eager to become a co-chair of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry and make the case to mayoral colleagues in every part of the country that marriage for committed same-sex couples is a profound good for families and communities,” Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry’s National Campaign Director and close Garcetti friend, told Frontiers. “I see only great things ahead.”

Garcetti made clear his ongoing commitment to equality at a small community reception for him at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center on Sept. 8. In introducing him, Center CEO Lorri Jean—who hugged him tightly when the new mayor arrived—said, “He is one of the smartest people you’re ever going to want to find, and he truly cares about Los Angeles and our people, including our people.”

Garcetti was moved, noting “the level of friendship and intimacy I feel—not only with the leadership of the Center, but with the Center. This is a homecoming.”

He flashed back to when the Center held a reception for Villaraigosa right after his election and how Villaraigosa was there for the LGBT community as Speaker of the Assembly years before. “For me to be here eight years later—being welcomed by what feels like my community, in the deepest sense of saying that—really fills me with such optimism about our future.”

He noted that history books make significant moments appear as if they were easily achieved. But, Garcetti said, “We know in the midst of making history how slow those lines are written, how painfully those paragraphs are made. And yet when we are part of history, as we all have been in this moment in time, we have needed each other more deeply than ever, each one of us, realizing that our fates are so closely tied that if we don’t recognize equal rights for all, none of us are truly free.”

Indeed, it was the LGBT movement—the “adding letters” that expanded inclusiveness—that “helped us rethink what inclusion means. It means building affordable housing for LGBT seniors at Triangle Square so the triple discrimination of being poor, gay and a senior didn’t mean you couldn’t find a community of your own. It meant for the transgender community here in Los Angeles not just making sure that the LAPD stepped up and realized that the crimes that were—and still are—being committed against our transgender community needed a level of nuance and understanding and education that we would integrate in, but, even in better times, we would have, for instance, the first transgender job fair in the city’s history.”

Now, Garcetti thinks about “How will we complete this vision for each one of us for a truly just and great city?”

Indeed, the Frontiers interview focused heavily on that ‘how’ of governing. So far, Garcetti said his biggest achievement has been building his administration team, which includes two top gay aides—Rich Llewellyn as mayor’s counsel and Rick Jacobs as deputy chief of staff.

“Absolutely my first priority is to make sure that people who will be the backbone of this administration are in place,” Garcetti said. “[P]art of what … people have missed is not about who stays, who goes—it’s about what they are going to do. So we’re going to have a new culture with as many departments as we can by Day 100. ... We’ll have metrics. There are goals—quantitative measures that I can look at—that the public can look at. For the first time, it won’t be just a hodge-podge of campaign promises. It will be thoughtful, methodical, transparent governing.”

Among his portfolio of duties, Rick Jacobs is essentially running the “strategic office.”

“Rick will be me when I can’t be some place, but he’ll also help remind us that there’s a bigger world outside of these walls, because living here, working here, the place can take you over when you realize there are 3,909,500 people who are not at City Hall,” Garcetti said. “He’ll also do the Office of Strategic Partnerships, which is nonprofit, public-private partnerships aspects, and also protocol for our diplomacy efforts. So that will be an important part, too. And I think he brings in great experience and understanding of the nonprofit world and how to leverage up relationships with foundations and community partners with advocacy groups.”

“Mayor Garcetti looks at Los Angeles as a city greater than the sum of its parts,” Jacobs told Frontiers. “He knows that LGBT people are key to the fabric of every community, and that’s how he looks at our work here. It’s refreshing and empowering to know that our mayor thinks about whole people rather than labels. That’s the L.A. of today, and ideally the nation of tomorrow.”

To achieve that, Garcetti will continue to communicate directly with the people—as many discovered when the mayor Tweeted about potholes while on jury duty.

“I will regularly communicate with the people, whether that’s me directly Tweeting, whether that’s my social media team looking at the hastag #LAMayor and our accounts, whether it’s our outreach teams doing our community walks—which I did as a councilmember. We did our first one in Venice. I was hoping a few dozen people would show up. Over 200 people came,” he said. “So we will talk to and find Angelenos using every medium we know how except banners on planes.”

Garcetti outlined what his strategy looks like. “There are three strategic goals I have and nine categories of action. The largest strategic goals are: jump-start our economy, rethink city government and to build a new civic fabric. The nine goals within that include everything from ‘live within our fiscal means’; ‘become customer friendly’; ‘train a future work force’; ‘get more people to work.’”

He intends to explain his vision concisely “in plain English.” He also sees three levels for his own involvement. “The official power I have directly as mayor, the collaborative power I have with city council and other levels of government—be they neighbors or metro or the state—and the informal, soft power I have to convince the private sector, the nonprofit sector and the community neighborhood space to engage with me toward common goals. And we have some very specific metrics—20,000 green jobs and a program to do that by cleaning the water, by installing solar power and by making buildings more energy efficient.”

The energy efficiency stuff, he says, “pays for itself.”

“I won’t try to be all things to all people. A mayor is limited in what he can do,” Garcetti said. “People think there are unlimited resources, but I am rethinking the city, so it’s not just an office full of 100 people doing work. It’s a city staff of nearly 50,000 public employees that—if respected, trained and lifted up—can be even more skilled ambassadors, innovators and delivery personnel of these services.”

In some ways, Garcetti is reimagining his Navy experience as a template for civilian use, such as the training the military received before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“My experience in the Navy is that training across a mass of people from different backgrounds and different ethnicities and different ages and genders—and now, thankfully, sexual orientations—you can do that if you actually embed that culture,” Garcetti said. “I want to have customer service be a value that’s taught.”

Garcetti is also very keen to reward and lift up the civil service workers who have been beaten down by ideology and the economy. “I will have high standards for accountability. I will make sure we can sustain our finances,” Garcetti said. “But I will also tell the stories of the good that we do. We have chosen this pathway for a reason—because we believe in what we do. And I think it’s important for the public to know that—to feel like they’re listened to when they give feedback, and for us all to be able to improve as we provide those services that people deserve.”

Garcetti also thinks it is time for the Neighborhood Councils to rethink their mission and agenda, too. That can’t come soon enough according to longtime feminist and LGBT civil rights activist Robin Tyler, who is on the board of the North Hills West Neighborhood Council and alleges virulent sexism as well as a possible violation of the Brown Act.

“As someone who has worked in the movement since the 1970s, I have experienced a lot of discrimination,” Tyler told Frontiers. “But I have never had to face the blatant sexism and misogyny that I have encountered while being elected to the North Hills West Neighborhood Council,” along with three other women board members.

Garcetti would not comment on the charges but said that accusations of discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation “have to be taken seriously by the city. Period. Full stop.” A staff member subsequently got in touch with Tyler about the situation.

The Neighborhood Councils need to write their second chapter,” Garcetti said. “[W]e need to either step backwards and say that Neighborhood Councils shouldn’t exist—which is not my opinion—or empower them with more. ... Henry Kissinger said that university politics were so vicious precisely because there’s so little at stake.”

Perhaps—specifically around reviewing land use projects—the Neighborhood Councils should have more formal powers. And “widening the number of people who participate. Sometimes it’s too few, and those too few voices—ones that are dysfunctional—chase anybody new away. … That’ll be important. And engaging traditional community organizing. ... You begin to teach people how to engage in the community, because nobody gets this book when they’re born or arrive in Los Angeles” on how government works.

Interestingly, the future Garcetti is proposing is a city government in which both Tea Party and Occupy L.A. activists can participate. And that’s a cultural shift that could shake the nation.