If Garcetti Goes to India, Who’ll Step In as Interim Mayor?

A look at possible short-term ’caretakers’ if Garcetti takes a new gig

The chatter that President Joe Biden will soon nominate Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next U.S. Ambassador to India is growing deafening. Numerous media outlets are reporting that an announcement could come as soon as next week.

Nothing is official until the POTUS speaks it into being, and there are always possible hurdles, as the appointment requires the approval of the U.S. Senate. However, all the talk about Garcetti going to New Delhi is sparking a big question: Who will lead L.A. if he leaves?

The answer is as uncertain as it is crucial. When a mayor leaves the state, the City Council President becomes acting mayor. That would elevate Nury Martinez, but acting mayor is usually a short-term gig, most frequently employed when a mayor travels out of California.

If Garcetti departs, one possibility is calling a special election to finish his term, which runs through late 2022. However, that is complicated and expensive, and a regular election is already scheduled for next June (with a runoff in November). So a “special” would not make sense from a municipal standpoint.

More likely is the City Council installing a “caretaker,” or interim mayor, someone to essentially serve as CEO of L.A. until the next mayor is elected and inaugurated. But that has complications, too.

Anyone aiming to succeed Garcetti would thrill at the opportunity to be interim mayor, as it could provide a boost come election day. Yet others within City Hall who also want the big job would fight this tooth-and-nail, which is why Martinez might have trouble if she seeks to make her acting mayor post permanent. City Attorney Mike Feuer and Councilman Joe Buscaino have already launched mayoral campaigns, and council members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin de León are publicly musing about running. Don’t expect any four of those insiders to allow the fifth to gain some kind of advantage.

So an interim mayor likely has to be someone who won’t run, but still possesses the gravitas, respect, and connections to get things done. Garcetti just put the coming fiscal year’s budget to bed, but an interim mayor will be responsible for the next spending plan. Plus, a caretaker must be able to lead in the event of a city-shaking crisis. Another pandemic may be unlikely, but then again, the first one was unlikely. And there is precedent for the extraordinary—in 2001, Council President Alex Padilla became acting mayor after 9/11 when Mayor Jim Hahn was in Washington, D.C., and was unable to get back to town for a few days with air travel grounded.

Who could potentially be interim mayor and make the most important decisions for L.A.? Here are seven potential choices.

Antonio Villaraigosa

Los Angeles’s 41st mayor was ultimately a disappointment, with personal ambition undercutting his potential, and when he ran for governor in 2018 he got hammered. Still, he could be the best option for a short-term assignment—AnVil knows the inner workings of City Hall better than almost anyone. He is unfazed by dealing with people in power. He understands the city’s fiscal structure. He has the charisma to lead.

There is also a personal reason: Performing well as a caretaker could revive his political career, especially if he envisions one day running for another elected office. This would put him back in the spotlight, and Villaraigosa really likes the spotlight.

Wendy Greuel

She lost the mayor’s race against Garcetti in 2013, and her public profile has been fairly low since then, but there is a lot that could make Greuel a good fit. She served eight years as City Controller and was on the City Council before that, and knows how to get things done in government. Her experience in City Hall goes back to the Tom Bradley administration. She is smart, confident, and tough.

Another positive: Greuel chairs the commission overseeing the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Garcetti appointed her to the panel), which means she is up to speed on the biggest crisis facing the city. Having a comprehensive understanding of homelessness will be vital for anyone who takes the job even on a short-term basis.

Zev Yaroslavsky

It would be hard to find someone more skilled at horse trading and managing power players (and their egos) than Yaroslavsky. He spent 40 years in elected office, including 20 as a County Supervisor. Although he left that job in 2014 and has not held a City of L.A. post since the last millennium, he stays involved in many ways, including being the director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. No one will intimidate this lion of L.A. politics.

But would he want the job, even for the short term? One could see why, after a career in public service, Yaroslavsky would politely decline. Then again, it’s hard to top the legacy play of stepping up when your city needs you.

Ana Guerrero

If consistency of vision is important, the focus could turn to this City Hall veteran. Guerrero has served as Garcetti’s chief of staff since he became mayor, and she was also his chief of staff when he was on the council. In other words, she knows City Hall inside-out, and not only does she have long relationships with council members and department heads, she knows their predilections and how they operate.

Guerrero may not be well-known by the general public, but she is highly respected and would be the most likely of anyone to seamlessly carry on the priorities that the Garcetti administration pushed in the past eight years.

Paul Krekorian

Would the council elevate one of their own? They might if it’s Krekorian, who is in his final term and has shown no inclination to run for mayor. Like others on the list, he knows City Hall and its players, and his years chairing the council’s Budget and Finance Committee give him a crucial understanding of the city’s fiscal habits and standing. He is not flashy but he is smart and steady, all traits that could prove important as L.A. heals from a pandemic and readies for a combative election.

Herb Wesson

The former president of the City Council will likely be mentioned as a candidate for the role. He is adept at building alliances and can mash through legislation. He’s a knives-out pol who would not need a learning curve.

However, there may be too many negatives for him to get the job. Wesson was tight with disgraced former Councilman José Huizar. He got destroyed when he ran for County Supervisor last year, not even earning 40 percent of the vote in the runoff. He also made headlines this month for seeking to become a cannabis consultant for the city of Hawthorne, an affiliation that may not gel well with running L.A. It’s hard to see this happening.

Jerry Brown

There is about a zero percent chance that the former governor comes to Los Angeles’ rescue, and why would he give up his leisurely ranch life and tangle with a bunch of SoCal politicians and activists? He has far better things to do.

That said, there is probably no one who would enter the building with as much respect and political acumen as Brown. And there is no one who has seen and dealt with more. Even if he is not an L.A. guy, he might be the best guy for the job.

RELATED: If Mayor Garcetti Goes to India, What Does It Mean for L.A.?

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