Eric Garcetti: Rock star or bureaucrat?

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The jury is still out on L.A.’s mayor and his vision for the future

Zocalo Public Square

From the left, moderator Saul Gonzalez, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dean Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., political activist and organizer Torie Osborn, and L.A. Times columnist and Luskin senior fellow Jim Newton.

Is Eric Garcetti a rock-star-in-waiting who has laid the groundwork to make major change in Los Angeles? Or is he a bureaucrat who lacks direction and big vision for the future of the city? At an event co-presented by “Thinking L.A.,” a partnership by UCLA and Zocalo Public Square, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dean Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., Los Angeles Times columnist and Luskin senior fellow Jim Newton, and political organizer and activist Torie Osborn disagreed on what Mayor Garcetti’s first year in office tells us about what’s next for L.A.

Garcetti has had a great first year in office, Osborn told a large audience Monday evening at MOCA Grand Avenue. He’s aligning other city officials and politicians with his causes. He’s bringing in money from Washington, D.C., to revitalize the L.A. River and transform transportation. And he’s generating “a sense of regionalism” — convening the cities of L.A. County, showing up for election night in Long Beach — that’s bringing cohesion to Southern California.

Gilliam agreed that Garcetti’s back-to-basics platform addresses L.A.’s broken administrative structure. But, he asked, does Garcetti have what business strategists call "a big hairy audacious goal" for the city? Los Angeles has “very large problems,” and we need to have some vision about how we solve them, said Gilliam. Playing "small ball” might not be an attractive answer to the populace.

Newton expressed admiration for Garcetti’s patience. However, he said, “Once you have a functioning bureaucracy, it’s helpful to point it in a particular direction.” Even if they didn’t achieve them, Garcetti’s predecessors had audacious goals at the outset of their terms — hiring thousands of police officers (Richard Riordan), planting a million trees (Antonio Villaraigosa). “Maybe it makes sense to have a city that can achieve goals before rolling out goals,” said Newton. “But I don’t know what those goals are.”

Osborn contended that Garcetti is rebranding Los Angeles as a capital of innovation and inspiring an “explosion of civic engagement by young people.”

Gilliam said that might be true for young people in certain parts of the city, but not in South and East L.A., where education and affordable housing remain big issues.

KCRW news producer and the evening’s moderator, Saul Gonzalez, asked the panelists to speak to an oft-heard (though perhaps unfair) comparison between the first year performance of Garcetti and that of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Newton said that these mayors are different people with different predecessors. De Blasio is a “big idea, big ticket” mayor — and Garcetti’s never advertised himself as such. “There is a certain amount of Villaraigosa fatigue in this city,” said Newton. Our last mayor “was a very good starter and a very bad finisher.” It’s possible that Garcetti is a better finisher than a starter, he said.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell what Garcetti’s going to accomplish in every arena. But, said Gilliam, it’s fair to ask what he intends to do about the big issues citizens care about: combining economic development and affordable housing, increasing equity between the haves and have-nots, and preparing young people for the 21st-century job market. Having the Los Angeles River is better than not having a river, said Gilliam — but what big problem does it solve?

You have to look at this administration in context and in terms of timing, said Osborn. Although they don’t sound sexy, Garcetti’s back-to-basics accomplishments, his quest for transparency in government, and the work he’s done to align himself with the city council, controller, and attorney are all hugely important in this particular moment.

But, asked Gonzalez, has the “hipster stuff” that Garcetti has accomplished dealt with the fundamental challenges facing L.A.?

Osborn pointed to Garcetti’s work on veterans’ issues and immigration as evidence of his efforts to take on big challenges. But she also said that he has been “unbelievably disciplined and restrained” as he bides his time before making a big move.

Gilliam counseled against the mayor keeping his strategy a secret from the people of L.A., who are facing extraordinary economic challenges. “Where’s the sense of urgency?” he asked.

The sense of urgency for this mayor is perhaps different than it was for mayors in the 1980s and 1990s, when more than 1,000 people were murdered in Los Angeles each year, said Gonzalez. “We haven’t even talked about public safety, which is kind of extraordinary.”

L.A.’s gains in public safety are the city’s most impressive achievement of the past few decades, said Newton. But the crises of the past “really focused the mind[s]” of the city’s leaders and forced them to articulate big ideas. Riordan, for instance, was elected mayor in 1993 on a “tough-enough-to-turn-L.A.-around” platform, just after the riots and the LAPD’s subsequent failure to respond.

How much of what Garcetti can accomplish is constrained by the structure of L.A. government?

The power vested in the mayor of New York City or San Francisco is “phenomenally different” than in L.A., where the mayor is constrained in part by the county government, said Osborn.

However, said Newton, some of it is personality. No one referred to Mayor Tom Bradley as weak; he “found ways to be powerful.”

L.A., added Gilliam, is a complex place. People in the West Valley don’t want the same things as people in Mid-Wilshire or Westchester. Which is why Garcetti could use a master narrative — “a big picture umbrella under which lots of things can fit.”

Osborn said that big vision is coming and described Garcetti as a “rock star” waiting to put forward his big ideas.

“Rock stars are rock stars because they’re oversized,” said Gilliam. “Given the great tears in the civic fabric of this city, the mayor has to be someone who steps into the breach.”

In the audience question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked to articulate what they think Garcetti’s “moonshot” goal should be.

Education, said Gilliam. Even if the mayor doesn’t control the schools, he has a “bully pulpit” from which to make a statement, the dean said. Osborn said: “It definitely has to do with the opportunity agenda: economic justice, economic equity.”

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  • Saul Gonzalez, Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., Torie Osborn and Jim Newton

    Saul Gonzalez, Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., Torie Osborn and Jim Newton

    From the left, Saul Gonzalez, Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., Torie Osborn and Jim Newton at Zocalo Public Square forum on Los ...

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