When President Biden last July nominated Eric Garcetti to be his U.S. Ambassador to India, no one imagined that the mayor would still be in Los Angeles nine months later. Among the unexpected twists of his elongated tenure is that Garcetti got to deliver what will unequivocally be his final State of the City speech.
SOTCs offer an opportunity to tout accomplishments and outline both budget priorities and future agendas. Garcetti did all that Thursday, while recognizing that much of what happens next will occur under his successor. The word “India” was never uttered, but the idea of the future was front and center. Here is how the event, held in front of a limited crowd and streamed live, went down.
9:30 a.m.: The location of a SOTC is always symbolic. A 2016 Garcetti speech at the LED manufacturing firm Noribachi provided an opportunity to discuss jobs. The 2020 address, held a month into the coronavirus pandemic, took place in City Council chambers, cementing the idea of government response. This year the live feed opens to reveal a podium on the under-construction Sixth Street Viaduct, the glorious, $588 million replacement of a crumbling bridge connecting Downtown and Boyle Heights.
A young woman introduces Garcetti; he identifies her as Kenia Castillo, 22, the daughter of a janitor. Garcetti recalls how she administered the oath of office when he was sworn in as mayor nine years ago, and today she is a college student who dreams of representing service workers. “She’s grown up just as our city has grown up too,” Garcetti intones.
The theme and symbolism are clear: a bridge connecting the past and the future, people and communities.
9:33: Garcetti reflects on the “Back to Basics” agenda that guided his early years as mayor. He hits the look-how-far-we’ve-come concept, mentioning that potholes are filled six days faster than when he assumed office, the minimum wage has been increased in the city, and 311 calls are answered quicker. The hits keep coming.
“Six summers from now you’ll ride right to the Coliseum for the opening of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” he declares, double-bragging about rail-building and securing the 2028 Summer Olympics.
9:36: “To our thousand great purposes in L.A., we added a grave one these past 763 days,” he says, marking the entrance to a short COVID chapter of the speech. It’s a reminder of the scores of evenings early in the pandemic when Garcetti appeared on TV in the effort to provide data, detail changing protocols and calm a frazzled city. “Our battle with COVID was both our darkest and our finest moment,” he says. He soon adds, “Today a hurt city roars back to life, renewed, recovering and remembering that in L.A. we don’t run from our big challenges, we rise to them, just as this bridge rises above the river that gives our city its very name.”
Yep, it’s the bridge-as-symbol speech.
9:41: The idea of transition takes hold as Garcetti says reporters frequently ask him about his legacy. He says it’s not something he thinks much about, and instead declares, “The only legacy I want you to know is that I deeply, deeply love this city, and that I served for two decades to make it better, to give you and L.A. everything I have.”
9:44: He turns toward the budget and touches on priorities, starting with the need to literally clean up L.A. He says the next spending document will have money to hire 800 new sanitation workers.
9:45: He turns toward public safety, a staple of nearly every SOTC. He goes broad, detailing a pandemic crime spike, as well as gun buyback events and an expansion of the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership program. He doesn’t discuss the LAPD’s budget or hiring officers, but does refer to a mental-health crisis and “alternatives to policing and incarceration that we know we so badly need.”
9:52: He hits the idea of the “Justice Budget” that he introduced last year, and uses it to swerve to the topic of housing, or rather, the insufficient amount of it created. “It is a failure. Our failure. L.A.’s failure. California’s failure,” he says. “Simply put, we have not built enough housing for the people of L.A.”
He says some progress has been achieved, and cites the construction of permanent supportive housing and small accessory dwelling units, and says 150,000 new homes have been constructed in the city. Then he details an Everest-sized goal, saying the new aim is to build 457,000 units by 2029.
“I challenge the next mayor to hit that goal, even to blow past it,” he says, and somewhere, silently, mayoral contenders Karen Bass, Joe Buscaino, Rick Caruso, Mike Feuer and Kevin de León collectively go into shock.
9:59: More on housing! Garcetti asks landlords and property managers to accept housing vouchers that will get formerly homeless individuals into permanent residences. He goes further, suggesting, “Let’s lean into SB9, the state law that lets you put four homes on a single family lot.”
This may be the biggest flamethrower line in the speech. It’s an idea many housing advocates embrace, and that many community members recoil at, believing it will lead to overbuilding that rips apart the fabric of single family home neighborhoods. It’s also something that will be a fight not so much for Garcetti, but for the next mayor.
10:03: It’s a natural turn toward the next chapter: homelessness. Garcetti says the new city budget will dedicate more than $1 billion to address the crisis.
10:07: He swings into what will be the final chapter of the speech, as well as the largest one. If he professed before not to think much about his legacy, then it’s hard to imagine he finds any topic more important: climate change. He doesn’t say it, but it seems he wants to be remembered as the Environmental Mayor.
Garcetti touches on his high school internship with the organization Treepeople, and cites achievements during his tenure on solar power and reducing the reliance on coal. He discusses making all city buses electric, lessening the amount of water Los Angeles imports, and a “climate equity fund” in the new budget that, among other things, will get air purifiers in homes that suffer the most from pollution.
The ambitions are huge.
“Follow our plan and L.A. will create a zero-carbon energy grid, zero-carbon buildings, zero-carbon transportation, zero waste and zero wasted water,” he declares, before adding perhaps the Garcetti-est line ever. “And when we reach those five zeros, we will walk lighter on this land.”
10:18: He’s building toward the end, offering what sounds like a dig to his critics, though I assume he would deny it if asked. “I believe that leaders are not elected to be popular, but to make the often-times unpopular decisions that history demands,” he says.
10:22: After detailing suggestions for the next mayor, and looking back again on the past, he ends his final SOTC on a personal element.
“This time next year I won’t be your mayor. I’ll be one more Angeleno,” he remarks. “And with the exception of dad, there’s no title I cherish more. Los Angeles, I can’t wait to see what’s next.”