20 Months of Damage Later, Eric Garcetti May Get That India Ambassadorship

Cityside Column: The long-delayed gig appears increasingly likely, but no one has been left unscathed

In July 2022, on the first anniversary of then-Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be the next U.S. Ambassador to India, I joked about how the lag in the process is similar to the gestation period of an Asian elephant.

At least, I thought it was a joke—it takes about 22 months for a pachyderm to be born.

Suddenly, it is 20 months since July 9, 2021, when President Joe Biden confirmed weeks of rumors by nominating his California pal to be the next U.S. emissary to New Delhi. Now, after an unprecedented obstacle course that turned out to be laid not just with hurdles but also land mines, it looks like Garcetti is about to limp across the finish line. After a crucial committee approval on Wednesday, media reports said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is scheduling a full Senate vote as soon as next week on Garcetti’s nomination to become what is officially titled (deep breath) “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of India.”

You don’t schedule a plenipotentiary vote in a divided Congressional chamber unless you know you have a win. So unless something blows up at the last minute, the president will get what he wants: the guy who led Los Angeles for 9 1/2 years will lead relations with India, beginning the next chapter of his political career.

Just don’t pretend that Senate approval will bring the proverbial sweet smell of success. This is more like a victory after navigating through a tunnel of garbage.

Calling the process unprecedented underplays the word. Early on, the ambassadorship seemed assured, a thank-you gift to Garcetti after he played an important role in backing his longtime friend’s run to the White House. It is easy to forget now, but there was a period in 2020 when Biden’s path to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee was uncertain. The L.A. mayor endorsed the Delaware senator at a crucial moment in the primary season, then stumped for him as the November election approached.

The Biden victory brought high expectations. Many whispered that Garcetti wanted a Cabinet post, and Angelenos believed it was so likely that there were extensive discussions and media reports about who would be acting or interim mayor if he left before his term expired. And if you want to be really dizzied, recall how there was talk of, gulp, disgraced Council President Nury Martinez leading L.A. for six months or more.

A Cabinet slot didn’t come to pass, nor did speculation of a gig such as climate czar in Biden’s administration. Then came the ambassadorship opportunity and while the mayor does not seem to have deep ties to India, the post is juicy—India is a vital U.S. ally and the second most-populous nation on Earth. Plus, the ambassador’s residence, known as the Roosevelt House, is super cushy. The State Department even has a 52-page brochure detailing its amenities.

The ride, of course, has been rollicking. Garcetti appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December 2021—the process already seemed slow at that point—and the next month the panel voted aye. But things fell apart before the full Senate could take up the matter, amid allegations that Garcetti failed to respond to reports of abusive behavior by former aide Rick Jacobs. The mayor’s onetime communications chief, Naomi Seligman, waged a fierce anti-Garcetti campaign. Holds were placed on the vote and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley commissioned a report concluding that Garcetti either knew or should have known about the behavior as opponents dismissed the report as political theater.

Garcetti steadfastly maintained that he was unaware of any harassment by Jacobs. As he told LAMag in September, “I only knew what I knew, period. And I did not witness that behavior. And if I did, I would’ve done something to address it.”

This produced a political Sliding Doors moment. The White House could have decided the fight wasn’t worth it, turned back, and offered a less controversial nominee. Instead, the decision was made to stay on the train and go forward.

Was there an Oval Office meeting where Garcetti pulled an “I’ve got this” assurance and persuaded a skeptical Biden? Or were quiet promises made by both sides that they would do whatever it takes because you can’t let the Republicans get a W for rejecting a friend of the president? I have no idea how it went down, but this is where things got really interesting, and where the mayor got really strategic.

Whatever complaints may exist about his time leading Los Angeles, Garcetti is very persuasive in small groups and one-on-one. And he did the work, making frequent trips to Washington, D.C. to try to win over important people. At the end of February Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine told the L.A. Times that she was “impressed” by Garcetti after the two met, and that comment didn’t happen by accident. This was built on the well-publicized move by Garcetti’s parents to hire a lobbying firm to advance his cause.

The combat continued. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio briefly slowed things down, but then on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-8 to confirm Garcetti. The five-vote margin is massive, considering that two “Yes” nods came from Republicans. Add Collins and others whom Garcetti has lobbied, along with the Democrats’ 51-49 Senate advantage, and there appears to be enough wiggle room for approval, even if a couple of Democrats vote “No.”

This has, by every account, been a painful process that has gone on a year too long, and no one emerges unscathed—Garcetti has been lambasted, Biden had to expend political capital, the Democrats were unable to unify, and Republicans and those who lashed out against the former L.A. mayor appeared destined to end with a loss.

Then, of course, there are the people and the political leadership of India, who were left in limbo by a wonky, partisan American political process. The next U.S. ambassador is going to have to go out of his way to persuade the country’s leaders that they matter.

Then again, memories can be short, and today’s flaming mess can be tomorrow’s “wasn’t it wacky how long that lasted?” moment. Because in the end, it looks like Garcetti will get the gig, and L.A. will move on to the next story.

Unless of course, something unexpected happens, because in politics as in so much else, it’s never over until it’s over.

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