Mayor Eric Garcetti’s emergency press briefing Sunday night on the coronavirus pandemic was a new step for him, but was full of strikingly familiar visual language. Speaking in a conference room and wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and striped tie, an American flag pin on his lapel, the Mayor stood at a lectern bearing the city seal.
The room was devoid of reporters, a nod to social distancing (members of the press could submit questions virtually). A full-sized American flag was positioned to his right. To his left, behind a sign language interpreter, one could glimpse the striding bear of the California state flag along with a city flag. A single camera was placed directly in front of the second-term mayor, providing a head-on view.
It was reminiscent of an Oval Office address delivered at a time of crisis. Although Garcetti never formally launched that once much-discussed presidential run, in announcing an emergency order Sunday evening, and while seeking to reassure a spooked Los Angeles, he took a presidential approach.
The pandemic has sparked unease across the country, and many Californians have lamented the lack of solace emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That has created a type of leadership void, particularly for state governors and mayors of big cities where the crisis is acute.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, and nearly seven years after he was first sworn in, Garcetti is facing the biggest test of his mayoralty. Like mayors before him, how he leads and responds to an unprecedented emergency will impact the well-being of the citizenry and color his legacy.
Join me for the latest updates on our emergency response to COVID-19.
I want to reiterate that we are here for you. We are working tirelessly to ensure you have the support, the resources, and the critical services that you need to get through this time. https://t.co/DMIzUVjvzn pic.twitter.com/MgSS1K8y7q
— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) March 17, 2020
In the last 24 hours, Garcetti utilized a big stick, issuing the Sunday emergency order to close bars, movie theaters, gyms, and bowling alleys, and limit restaurants to take-out and delivery service (the order also included a moratorium on residential evictions). Then, Monday morning, there was a plea to humanity and common sense, augmented with a healthy shake of reassurance. Appearing at a grocery distribution warehouse with a collection of supermarket executives, he asked Angelenos to halt panic buying, and stressed that there is plenty of food for the coming months.
“Hoarding is hurting our community, so please don’t do that,” Garcetti said. “And your behavior isn’t just bad. It can cost somebody their life.”
Garcetti’s emergency order was surprising in part because it went beyond what Gavin Newsom had offered earlier Sunday. The governor requested, but didn’t dictate, that drinking spots close in the effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Garcetti issued a statement praising the move, and then a few hours later significantly ramped up the local response.
Mayors and governors across the country are being forced to make quick decisions based on a stream—actually, more like a flood—of rapidly changing information. Directives that a week ago would have seemed like the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly are becoming commonplace. On Monday, residents of six Bay Area counties were ordered to shelter in place. It’s easy to forget how recently the debate involved simply whether fans could attend a Golden State Warriors game.
Garcetti’s leadership skills have long divided Angelenos. Supporters say he is accomplished and point to his intelligence and achievements, such as helming the effort to land the 2028 Summer Olympics and being the face of the effort to pass Measure M, the 2016 half-cent sales tax that is funding a battery of L.A. County mass-transit projects.
Detractors charge that the mayor can lack fortitude and avoids political battles that he can’t win or that are publicly difficult (an assertion Garcetti rejects). His toughness has been repeatedly questioned.
Now Garcetti finds himself at a moment when the city is hungering for leadership and reassurance that, ultimately, everything will be OK and life will return to normal.
The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, but Los Angeles mayors being at the forefront of a crisis is nothing new. Every mayor since term limits were instituted has experienced an emergency so significant that how they responded helped define their legacy. Results have been mixed.
Richard Riordan had plenty of detractors as a businessman mayor who often clashed with the city council, but he rode herd on the city’s rapid response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and forever earned praise for spearheading the rebuilding of a downed portion of the 10 Freeway in just over two months. The response to the temblor was the measuring stick for which modern mayors are compared at a time of crisis.
Mayor Jim Hahn was less successful in his most salient test—leading after 9/11. When the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Hahn was out of town, and it was then-Council President Alex Padilla who appeared on TV after the attacks and sought to reassure frightened Angelenos that the city was safe. Hahn would record signature achievements including beating back a Valley secession movement, but he was never viewed as a great leader of people.
Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor in 2005 on a wave of hope and potential. He would record standout achievements, including helping persuade voters in 2008 to pass Measure R, the predecessor to Measure M, which ignited a regional rail-building boom. Yet when the Great Recession hit, Villaraigosa was slow to react, and city employee contracts he approved early in his tenure helped lay the groundwork for a devastating swath of municipal layoffs. Yes, the economic crisis was brutal everywhere, but Villaraigosa hardly earned high marks for his response.
Now Garcetti finds himself as the person who 4 million city residents and 10 million county inhabitants are looking to for leadership. He has an immense and potentially unwinnable task, as he has to deliver quick decisions that will make daily life more difficult, and encourage people to be better to each other. He has to maintain city services, comfort the constituency and, again, convince people not to panic.
While what happens next is unknown, one thing is almost certain: in the coming weeks and months, Garcetti will set the tone for the public response. How he fares, and the decisions he makes, will play an outsized role in how the region weathers the crisis.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.