Peel back the veils of time and return with us to that giddy, carefree era known as 2013. Barack Obama was in the White House. Geraldo Rivera was posting topless selfies. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were getting engaged (while Bruce and Kris Jenner were getting divorced). Everybody else was playing Candy Crush.
And in front of City Hall, 42-year-old Eric Garcetti was being sworn in as Los Angeles’s new mayor, the youngest in a century.
“These times demand a back-to-basics mayor focused, above all else, on our economy and jobs,” he told the crowd, which included supporters like Jimmy Kimmel and Moby (who anointed Garcetti as the “coolest mayor” in the city’s history). “You’ll have a local government that’s off your back and on your side,” vowed Garcetti.
Fast-forward nearly a decade, and the mayor, now a boyish 51, is comfortably installed in a chair in his City Hall office, ready for a freewheeling, two-hour conversation about his legacy and his tumultuous career. Before we begin he shows me a clock, gifted to him by a friend, that counts down the hours, minutes, and seconds until his mayoralty draws to a close.
Garcetti has been through a lot over the last nine years, scoring a raft of impressive victories while weathering an endless stream of crises—racial unrest, sex scandals among his top aides, bare-knuckle brawls with the police union and Black Lives Matter activists. The cherry on top was a deadly, once-in-a-century pandemic that shut down the city for the better part of two years. So it’s understandable why Garcetti might be a tad eager to move on to the next chapter of his life. If all goes to plan, that will involve a trip to New Delhi, where Garcetti hopes to serve as America’s next ambassador to India. But his confirmation stalled in the U.S. Senate after a sexual harassment suit against one of his top lieutenants embroiled the mayor in controversy. Just a few months ago, most pundits believed his nomination was dead in the water. But the early Biden supporter and eternal optimist says he still has the enthusiastic support of the White House and the Senate’s Democratic leaders and insists he will be confirmed shortly. (In the meantime the mayor is brushing up on his Hindi, a language he studied in college.)
On a sweltering morning in September—70 days, 14 hours, 17 minutes, and six seconds before he’s set to leave office on December 11, to be exact—Garcetti sat down with me for a candid discussion of the highs and lows of his tenure, what he’s most proud of, and the debacles he’d just as soon forget. Two weeks later, a leaked recording of a racist and profanity-laced meeting between three Latino City Council members and a powerful L.A. labor leader sent shockwaves throughout the city. The resulting uproar lead to the resignations of City Council President Nury Martinez and L.A. Labor Federation head Ron Herrera; it also added to the impression that a slow-rolling scandal has plagued Garcetti’s tenure at City Hall.
On Oct. 22, as the scandal widened, the mayor agreed to a follow-up interview to address these developments and other events that transpired since our earlier conversation. This article includes excerpts from both interviews, which have been edited for clarity and length.
LAMag: It’s been nearly two weeks since the council recordings were leaked, and the fallout shows no sign of abating. What was your reaction when you first heard the tapes?
Eric Garcetti: Oh, I was totally floored! Look, politics is not always polite. There’s a pervasive culture in politics, both from the inside and from the outside, that can be cruel and vindictive. But never in my career have I heard that sort of racism or people threatening violence to other people’s children. These words ripped our hearts apart.
You’ve known all of these people for a long time—was there anything in your dealings with them that could have predicted the behavior they exhibited in that recording?
Not at all. What I heard on those recordings in no way reflected the people I thought I knew. But I’m not making any excuses for them either. I can’t sugarcoat it. I was floored by what I heard and just as floored by what I didn’t hear. Because there were sins of commission and there were sins of omission that day. Their failure to challenge trash talk about somebody’s kid, their cynical racial framing, was really disgusting to me. It reflected how they saw the world or what they were willing to accept from somebody else. Any one of them could have pushed back on that. But nobody spoke up. Nobody spoke up! And I think it’s clear by now, that L.A. doesn’t want leaders like that.
It’s true that most city leaders have come down really hard on them. But you’ve received criticism in some quarters for not weighing in early enough.
That’s just flat wrong. I was clear on this from the very beginning. I weighed in on this the next day. You know, I can’t control when people publish the words that we put out. But I recognized after I heard that recording that all four of those individuals crossed the line. I said this to them in private and in public and I didn’t mince my words. I didn’t change my words and haven’t this entire time.
You talked to them in private when this broke?
I did. I talked to both Nury and Gil on the phone and I saw Kevin in person soon after.
And what was your message to them?
I’ll keep private conversations private, but it’s the same thing that I’ve said publicly. I said, “Look, the best thing for the city, and the best thing for you as individuals, is to immediately step aside.”
How did they respond to that??
I think that they were all kind of stunned and in pain and hoping that this might end or blow over. I know that two of them believe they are being tarred for words that they did not say. But this thing is not blowing over anytime soon, and the fallout from it is keeping the city from moving forward. There are folks who want to shut down the City Council until they all resign, but the city needs to continue working.
Do you think that those people are inherently racist?
I think that hate and racism live everywhere. As I told them, You can’t come back from this after a week or month of reflection. It will take lots of deep work to reemerge, not just as a politician, but as a person. People are complicated, people have lots of contradictions. I’ve seen all of them do immensely good work, and now I’ve seen them cross some horrible lines. And those things can coexist both as truths. But I think this incident also reflects the reality that racism lives everywhere, including in our leaders. That’s why checks on power are so important. In the end, this whole mess is about three things: racism, unkindness, and lack of transparency.
Isn’t it also about representation? If you can put aside the gross racism—a big if, I know—their main complaint seems to be that Latinos don’t have the political power in L.A. that their numbers deserve. Do you think they’re wrong about that?
I think we should definitely be talking about representation. We should be fighting for everyone to have a voice. But Karen Bass represents a district that hasn’t been majority Black in her entire career. Richard Polanco helped build a Latino caucus in the state legislature by running Latinos in non-Latino majority districts. I think that you must have those conversations. But having those conversations as a zero-sum game doesn’t reflect the L.A. I know. It doesn’t reflect the values of the majority of political leaders and communities.
Many people view this crisis as an opportunity to correct some longstanding structural problems in city government. As you know, New York City has 50 Council members. Los Angeles has just 15 Council members presiding over districts whose populations exceed the size of many major cities in America. Do you support expanding the City Council?
Yeah, I’ve always been on the record supporting a larger council. Even when I served on the council! Not sure about 50 members, though. I think 25 members would be a good start. One condition though is I wouldn’t cut everyone’s salary and staff to do that. Because the most important links to city services are those people who work at the City Council office. Nor do I want to see people have to work outside of City Hall on things that could result in conflicts of interest. But I do think we need to have independent redistricting. We need to appoint people to committees much more transparently. We need to rotate who chairs our planning committee in the City Council so that no single member has too much power with the real estate and developers. And I also think it’s time for charter reform. It’s time to take a look at the whole way the city is governed—not just the problems that were reflected here.
So how does it feel, knowing that you have just a few weeks left in office? Do you find yourself nostalgically looking back, or are you just anxious to move on?
Neither. My father always said, “Know who you are going in because it’s who you’re gonna be going out to.” I’m neither clinging to power till the last moment nor am I checked out. I’m kind of in a really nice place.
I hear that you loathe questions about your legacy, but is there something you have achieved in the past nine years that you’re particularly proud of?
Well, I want people to know I love the city and I worked really, really hard for the city. Not just while I was mayor but during my 20 years in politics. It’s a really tough place to work, City Hall. My main themes when I got here were, first, getting back to the basics—making our city services better. So I’ve been really proud that the basic city services—from our pipes to our potholes to our streets—are on a really good track. The second theme was to try to get L.A.’s economy going. And even in our toughest moments, we led the recovery out of 2008, raising the minimum wage and reducing our taxes. But the third area, the one that I’m probably happiest about, we have movement on what I call “building the city of the future.” What’s screwed up about L.A. is usually that we ignore the decades-long support for things that we need: housing, transportation, airports, and our power system.
Do you think the city is safer and more habitable now than it was when you got here?
In some ways, no. In some ways, absolutely. But I think the honest answer for all of us is this: It’s tougher to buy a home. We have an even lower homeownership rate than New York City does. Unless you’re lucky enough to inherit or are quite wealthy, you’re not gonna buy into this market.
According to the polls, a sizable majority of Angelenos are not feeling very happy about the city and where it’s going. Why do you think that is? Could you have done something that would have changed that?
We’re coming out of a lot of trauma. So that’s part of this moment. The state didn’t touch a lot of stuff during the pandemic. So the city got very dirty. The homelessness crisis continued, although I think that curve is finally flattened and now needs to be bent. My diagnosis is housing, housing, housing. Almost everything comes from that. If we can’t stick to the momentum that we’ve built up now, and even double down on it, L.A. is really gonna be a town of haves and have-nots. It’s gonna be a very difficult place for businesses to stay, let alone grow. It’s gonna be a difficult place for young people to find new opportunities. So it’s imperative for us to move forward on that.
We recently published a story by Sam Quinones that contended that the homeless crisis is not just a housing problem but also reflects a growing drug problem. He concluded that simply supplying housing to people without addressing the broader issues is doomed to failure.
So I’ve had this conversation a thousand times. Is it drugs and mental health or is it a lack of housing? It’s both! Places that have much less homelessness have the same challenges. Finland also has a lot of people who do drugs, but their policy is to put them indoors first, and then take care of the other problems. So housing is key. But it’s not the only thing. It’s been well-researched that, that a significant percentage of the unhoused are struggling with mental health and/or drug abuse problems, maybe as high as 40 percent. So you still have half the problem left.
What do you consider your signature accomplishment as mayor?
God. We got the Olympics. I tripled the rate of housing construction and affordable housing sixfold. I think we affected people’s lives here in a meaningful way. We reduced citywide poverty by 27 percent and increased Black and brown income by 44 and 43 percent, respectively, which is far higher than the national rate.
But despite all that, your favorability with some groups seems to have taken a hit in the past few years. Let’s talk about the George Floyd protests. I live just a few streets away from you . . .
Did you come visit the house too? [Laughs]
No, but I did hear the BLM protests that took place outside your house every day. At the same time, you were getting blasted almost daily by the police union for your “anti-cop” bias. Quite an accomplishment to manage to antagonize both of them at once! [Laughs] Why did you become such a lightning rod?
I think there’s been a real change, tactically, on both extremes right now, where there’s more nihilism and a kind of narcissism: “I wanna confront power; I wanna make noise; I don’t wanna cross the street and negotiate.” My experience is that even if most folks like you personally, the media mostly pays attention to people who complain the loudest. It doesn’t take a high percentage of people to cause a lot of disruption.
Why were the cops so upset with you?
It was all because of a comment that I never made. Period.
Set that straight.
I was in the First AME Church to give a speech about whether we as a country were going to value Black lives—whether we were going to save Black lives or be murderers, collectively. I never mentioned cops, let alone LAPD cops, which would make no sense when we were discussing a killing in Minneapolis. But that night there was a story on the KTLA crawl that said, “[Garcetti] calls LAPD cops murderers.” And lots of the criticism I’ve received from the [police union] is an echo chamber of that lie. I never said anything like that! And I never would.
What’s it like to have swarms of people yelling at your doorstep every single night?
It wasn’t fun. I think we have to address the trauma that every elected official I know has faced from people who feel entitled to invade the familial and personal space of their elected leaders. We’re not things, we are people. I talked to the mayor of a big city recently who had 5,000 people marching in front of her house. She heard classmates of her teenage son ask him “How can you bear to live with her!?” The mayor of San Jose had his house tagged in the middle of the night. But then his neighbors painted it out at two in the morning. It’s easy to terrorize people, right? People knew that I wouldn’t be at home, but they’d still swarm the house knowing that only my wife and daughter were there. Any human being would be traumatized by the sorts of things that we allow to go on in the name of no-limits activism.
Another issue these days is the rise in crime, which is bound to be a big motivating factor in the new election. It’s certainly been an issue with the police unions.
I would always advise, don’t just talk to a union. I’m not saying they don’t represent something about what some officers feel, but I’ve always had very close and very strong relationships with my rank and file. Also, the statistics are mixed. Some kinds of crime are up, but others are way down.
Are you happy with your leadership during COVID-19?
I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on what I’ve been happy with or unhappy with. I am really, really, proud of the team that was here.
That must have been a particularly difficult time for you.
It wasn’t like anything I’ve ever lived through or probably will live through again. We were doing things that the city had never done before. We were taking risks that few other cities were taking. And I know that there are thousands of people alive today [because of that], and that makes me very proud. I mean we had people reading every medical journal. We had the largest testing sites in the world. We were the first city to close down, to put masks on, to test people without symptoms, and mandate testing to knock down the racial death gap.
Were you personally frightened in the middle of all that?
I was traumatized like everybody else. But it wasn’t my place to indulge my own trauma. My place was to communicate relentlessly with the city’s people so we could accelerate our work. I thought it was really important to make people feel like they were not alone.
During the pandemic, was it a mistake to close the schools and keep them closed for so long?
I don’t believe so. Some kids and their parents would be dead today if we had not done that. But it’s true that real damage happened as a result of the closings that we have to work hard to fix.
Do you think the school unions have too much power in this city?
Well, I was happy to settle their strike in this office. No, they don’t have too much power. I think we have a still-somewhat-broken education system that is in bad need of repair and investment. But I’m very optimistic. I think the pandemic was actually a moment when the school district was at its best and came together really well. And it did much more than just schooling and helped people who were food insecure and had health care needs. I hope that spirit continues forward. I will say that we showed we could educate our kids even in the midst of a global emergency.
If you consider the city’s response to COVID as a high point, I imagine a low point would be the Rick Jacobs sexual harassment controversy. You said that you had no idea that anything was going on. Should you have been more attuned? He was, after all, one of your top lieutenants.
Well, there’s an assumption in your question that all these things that he was accused of actually happened. I only knew what I knew, period. And I did not witness that behavior. And if I had, I would’ve done something to address it. I won’t stand for that even from the closest of friends. I was a survivor of sexual harassment in high school myself.
You are a survivor of sexual harassment?
Yes. I testified in Congress in my position as president of the National Student Coalition Against Harassment for the first Violence Against Women Act. That was my first time ever in Congress.
Who harassed you?
I’d rather not talk about that. But it led me to the work that I did.
Some of your most vociferous critics have been your former aides, people like [former communications Chief] Naomi Seligman and her successor, Suzi Emmerling. Why do you think they have come after you? Why are they so angry and upset?
Conflicts happen between people. But when it comes to specific accusations of sexual harassment, which I take incredibly seriously, all I can say is, that’s not something that I witnessed.
But you don’t talk to Rick Jacobs anymore.
We have not talked since November [of 2020].
Why is that, if he didn’t do anything wrong?
Because we’re going to be in a court case, and everybody’s legal advice…is all those conversations then become something that’s part of a court record.
The two of you were recently seated across from each other on a plane. That must have been awkward.
[Laughs} I wouldn’t say it was awkward, but the flight didn’t last very long.
As an early Biden supporter and the leader of his transition team, you seemed destined for a plum cabinet position. But the fallout from the Rick Jacobs controversy seemed to sink your chances for a cabinet post and may now imperil your ambassadorship to India. Are you frustrated about how that’s played out?
I was honest with the city last December when I said I couldn’t leave in the midst of a pandemic when people were dying. And that’s when the appointment would’ve happened if it moved forward. I didn’t work for Joe Biden to get a new job. I have a great job here that I’m going to love and value until the last day. And I’ve never called the president asking for a job. Not once!
There’s a persistent rumor that Kamala Harris led the campaign to deny you a cabinet post because you opposed her being picked as Vice President. Do you get along with her?
Very much so. She privately calls me and texts me all the time. I see her whenever she’s out here.
So you didn’t counsel Biden against choosing her as his running mate?
I will absolutely keep completely private about my counsel [to the president}, but I will deny that I advised against Kamala, for sure. I think picking her was the absolutely correct decision.
Do you think she’d be a good candidate for president if Biden doesn’t run in 2024?
We’ll all learn in a year or two if he changes his mind. But as of today, he’s definitely running.
Tell me about the India ambassadorship. Have you ever been there?
Do you like Indian food?
I love Indian food! I went there first as a teenager. My college roommate was the son of the Indian ambassador under George H. W. Bush. But the president didn’t know any of this when he asked me.
But why did they choose you for that job?
Well, the president’s been clear. He wants people with political experience to go into these major relationships.
It must irk you that your nomination has been held up for so long.
At this point, it’s been a gift. Things that I never would’ve been here for, like the openings of the Sixth Street Bridge and the Crenshaw line. A friend of mine was like, “God wanted you to stay here for an extra year so you could actually finish out your term.” And now I have zero guilt, which I would’ve always carried if I left before my term was over. But it has been frustrating watching Washington move so slowly and the untruths that bounced back and forth. That’s been less than pleasant. But Joe Biden’s loyalty to me and vice versa speaks for itself.
What happens if you don’t get this ambassadorship? Is there something else that you’d want to do?
I’m optimistic. I think this will happen. But you know, I’m a grounded and happy individual. I love my city. I’ve had two decades of the most extraordinary honor and privilege of improving my town, of representing it nationally and on the world stage. I have enough memories to live on for the rest of my life.
Do you regret running for president in 2020?
Regret running for president? I don’t remember running for president. [Laughs] I never ran for president.
The L.A. Times certainly seems to think that you did.
You’ll have to ask them about that. I did not run for president. I mean, look, from the moment you get elected dog catcher and certainly to City council, you get, “Aren’t you gonna run for president?” I didn’t ever close a door to that. And by doing that, people are like, “Oh, you’re just being really cute. You’re actually gonna run.”
Do you think you were hurt by the perception that you were running?
No. Because I didn’t run! I’ve been very proud that when California’s Senate seat opened up, I didn’t jump in and run for Senate when I could have. If it was just about what’s next, I could have jumped into running for governor right after I was elected. But I wanted people to know I wanted this job every single day. The only exception was when the president came forward. By then I was already in my eighth year. I felt like I had fulfilled my contract. But I’m really glad that I get to go to the last day.
Knowing what you do about the challenges of running Los Angeles—and the temperament required for the job—which of the current candidates for mayor do you think would be better?
Well, it’s not just temperament. It’s also experience. When people go to a mechanic or a doctor, they want people with a lot of experience in that specific area. Rick has been a commissioner a couple of times, and Karen’s been an elected official. So those are important parts of the job. But L.A. is such a huge city to govern and understand. I think both of them will need to surround themselves with really good people who are very experienced at City Hall. A lot of this job is making sure that people’s calls are being answered, the potholes are fixed, the permits are going out, the port is working, and the airport functions.
Are you saying that a candidate with executive experience may be better suited for that role?
I think that both of them have strengths that they bring to this job. And, remember, [Bass] has been an executive at a community coalition, which is executive leadership in some ways. That’s the kind of leadership style you need. City Hall is about coalitions. This whole region is about coalitions.
So you’re not endorsing Bass or Caruso?
I’ve said that I want to be there to help whoever wins.
But you must have an idea of which one would be better.
I do, but I think that the voters don’t need the current mayor telling them who the next mayor should be. I think, if anything, there’d be pushback on that. I will say this, though—Karen Bass is an extraordinary person and a dear friend. We’ve been friends from before I was an elected official and before she was an elected official.
Is she tough enough for the job?
Tough? Oh, absolutely. They’re both tough enough. They’re both skilled enough. They need to surround themselves with the right people. I think ultimately it’s a question of values.
You came into office with all these grand plans. Were there lots of reality checks for you?
Some of the smallest things can be the most difficult to do. But the bigger things—going after the Olympics, finally getting a people mover to the airport, recycling 100 percent of our water, tripling the amount of housing—are immensely labor-intensive. I’m always surprised about what we can and can’t do.
In New York, the mayor has a lot of power and public bandwidth. The most successful mayors there also have a certain swagger. Maybe not Bloomberg, he wasn’t all that swaggery, but . . .
He’s a billionaire! [Laughs] His money made up for his lack of swagger! But I don’t think people in L.A. are impressed by that sort of thing. They just want things to actually work. You know, just last year we had 120 ships idling out in the harbor, causing massive delays. Do you know how many ships are out there right now? Five! Newark now has 80 or 90 ships waiting. They still haven’t solved this problem. We figured it out many months ago. But it doesn’t make headlines when the city works, because that’s what people expect the city government to do. I was always aware that by the end of my time as mayor I wasn’t gonna be as popular as I was when I started, because, at a certain point, you become the face of intractable problems. And that’s fine. I’m happy to be blamed for something if I have the chance to make a difference. Just this morning, we opened up a permanent housing thing in South L.A. And I met a 70-year-old guy, Mr. Wang, who had been homeless for 20 years. Imagine being homeless in your seventies! He’s a photographer. He showed me his Instagram account, and I’m following him now. But he’s not homeless anymore. That story was resolved in a good way.
I imagine that governing the second-largest city in America may sometimes feel overwhelming. Where do you go when things get difficult or when you just need a break?
I can’t go to the places that I used to go to, with lots of other people in a public setting. I mean, I still do, but that’s not where I’m gonna relax.
Do you wear disguises? [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, exactly. I put on a fake beard and red hair and become Justin Turner![laughter] The truth is, like most people in Los Angeles, I find great comfort and refuge in the homes of my friends.
Do you think, racially, the city is more in tune or more divided than when you took office?
It’s certainly better than when I grew up. But there’s still plenty to do. I’m incredibly hopeful. I see a Muslim-Jewish dialogue here that’s stronger than it is in most places around the world. I mean, we’re a city of 10 million people. Can you find plenty of racism? Of course. I’ve seen it even in the fancy neighborhood where I live now. The mayor’s [neighborhood] when I was growing up? Both the Jew and the Latino would’ve been dead there. But now it’s like, yeah, the Black bishop behind us, an Indian couple across the way, Latinos and Orthodox Jews. I think L.A. is probably among the best places in the world when it comes to race relations.
How well is L.A. positioned for the future? Are we regressing or progressing?
You want the mayor to singlehandedly carry every bit of optimism. I will bring it every day. But Angelenos also have to find that optimism, or we’re screwed. In many ways, there’s still no better place than L.A. Think about it— what other city wouldn’t die to know that it’d be getting one or two new rail lines, let alone 15? What other city wouldn’t die to know they’re hosting the Olympic and Paralympic games, let alone the World Cup and the yearly Grammys and Emmys and Oscars? What other city wouldn’t die to have an airport that is the busiest in the world, or to be the first big city to go 100 percent renewable power? I can go through a list of 50 things that most cities would be thrilled about. So there’s reason to be optimistic. That is what we’re banking on.
I THINK L.A. IS PROBABLY AMONG THE BEST CITIES IN THE WORLD, IN TERMS OF RACE RELATIONS.
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This story is featured in the November 2022 issue of Los Angeles