Remember when Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti were at each other’s throats?
This was back in 2010, in the wake of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, when Los Angeles was on the verge of collapse and tens of thousands of city employees were worried that their paychecks might bounce. Then-mayor Villaraigosa and then-City Council president Garcetti were openly beefing, trading barbs in the press during tense, high-stakes budget talks. And then, a mayoral staffer whose name nobody had ever heard of—Matt Szabo—sauntered into the negotiations and helped broker peace.
“Things were dire,” remembers Claire Bartels, who was chief deputy controller at the time. “It was as tense a time as I’d ever seen. But Matt had a way of getting [people] on board. He somehow managed to successfully keep everybody at the table.”
A lot has changed in L.A. politics since then, but one thing remains the same: Szabo is still working at City Hall, pulling strings and exerting influence, acting as a sort of mayor’s whisperer. It’s safe to say that behind the scenes of almost every major political event that’s occurred in L.A. during the past 25 years—an election, a strike, or a contentious collective bargaining agreement—Szabo was somehow involved.
“Within City Hall, he’s like the Dos Equis guy—the most interesting man in the world, as much as you can be that in city politics,” says Garcetti, who hired Szabo to work in his administration when he became mayor, even though Szabo had previously worked for Villaraigosa and former council member and city controller Wendy Greuel, Garcetti’s rival in his first mayoral race. “He’s worked in and out of the bureaucracy,” Garcetti adds. “He’s well respected, and he’s run point working with labor. He’s a pretty rare find and, in some ways, the most important Angeleno that most people don’t know about.”
Indeed, Szabo has worked very hard to make sure you don’t know about him—but, whether he likes it or not, that might soon change.
“I’m not entirely comfortable talking about myself,” he tells Los Angeles.
Matt has no ego. He likes the behind-the-scenes stuff.
“I enjoy doing the work and, to the extent that I can, I enjoy helping people be as successful as they can, whether it’s folks in this office or the mayor’s office or council offices. And I’d hope that people I work with see me as a trusted adviser.”
For the last two years, while serving as the city administrative officer—the top budget official—Szabo, 46, has found it pretty easy to lie low. It’s an obscure position, but one that wields an immense amount of power as it’s the only appointed city officer who reports to both the mayor and city council. When things at City Hall are running smoothly, the CAO can blend into the background and go about their business with scant notice. But with a newly elected mayor still learning the ropes and a city council riven by unresolved feuds—not to mention besieged by protesters who shut down meetings—these aren’t exactly smooth times at City Hall.
Since she was sworn in, in December, Karen Bass has wasted little time in executing her promised plan to “fix” homelessness in L.A. She’s declared a state of emergency, granting herself greater executive powers, including the ability to speed up creation of affordable housing developments. But, of course, those developments cost money, which puts a spotlight on the guy in charge of doling out the budget in City Hall. If Bass’s plans turn out to be too ambitious and the money’s not there to execute them, it’s Szabo who’ll have to say no. That puts him in an awkward—and potentially super-public—position, since most politicians, especially progressive Democrats, don’t like to be told they can’t deliver on promises they’ve made to constituents.
Szabo, not surprisingly, rarely meets with the press. But perhaps sensing his days as City Hall’s best-kept secret are coming to an end, he agreed to meet with Los Angeles on a startlingly clear day in February.
“I’m surprised he agreed to the interview,” Greuel tells me before I venture to Szabo’s office in City Hall’s western wing. “Matt’s the kind of guy who has no ego. He really likes the behind-the-scenes stuff—finding the solution and handing it over to somebody. That’s what’s so impressive about him. And he’ll tell you things that no one else will tell you—sometimes in brutally honest terms—about a situation, whether it’s financial or political.”
But there he is, the Invisible Man in the flesh, impeccably dressed and even more impeccably groomed. He’s wearing a blue suit with a matching blue tie, and he sports a closely cropped military haircut. He’s exceedingly polite but clearly uncomfortable. The ultimate behind-the-scenes operator has the same startled look on his face as the Wizard when Dorothy yanked back the curtain.
“This job is fundamentally a support role to assist the elected leaders who represent the voice of people who elected them in achieving their objective,” he says softly. “There’s some independence required. Our analysis is independent; our recommendations are independent. But policy direction is set by the elected leaders, and there should not be any conflict whatsoever.” He pauses. “I’m just going to stop there.”
Adding to Szabo’s and, by extension, Bass’s challenges is the precarious state of L.A.’s finances. Sure, the city’s coffers are currently more or less full, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the city and county to the brink and, had it not been for Congress’s passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, which pumped $43 billion in recovery funding to cities throughout California, L.A. would have certainly had to implement severe austerity measures.
“If we’re appropriately modest in the good times, then we don’t have to be as draconian in the bad times,” says Szabo when asked about how he’s approaching the budget. “Consistency is key, and if we consistently commit to sound financial politics over time, that will benefit the city. Decisions that the mayor and council make now to build in resiliency will pay off when the next crisis hits. It’s about making the right decisions before the next crisis hits.”
Szabo’s political demeanor—guarded, restrained, seeking compromise as a rule—isn’t in vogue right now. It stands in stark contrast to the brash, confrontational style regularly on display in council chambers and other branches of local government. In fact, you could say he is the polar opposite of Kenneth Mejia, L.A.’s newly elected city controller and the closest thing Szabo has to a potential rival. Mejia came to office running on a promise to shake up the city establishment—and you don’t get more establishment than Szabo. Mejia wears sweatpants and Crocs, brings his dog to work, and takes to social media regularly to share videos and photos about his job and personal life. Szabo, in contrast, is the type of guy who might break into a cold sweat if he noticed his tie was askew. Several City Hall insiders interviewed for this story predict some sort of showdown between the CAO and the controller in the coming year.
But despite his Eagle Scout-like manner, Szabo’s no shrinking violet. “He doesn’t have the killer instinct, but he has the iron backbone,” says Garcetti when asked about Szabo’s mettle. “We’ve seen the toxicity over the past few years of the approach of being able to ‘shiv’ someone at City Hall, but those types of people are short-termers. If you’re in it just for the power, you usually end up out of office or even in prison, as we’ve seen. But if you love the city and you study it hard and get to know the people and you don’t back down, you can be Matt Szabo. And that’s what you want, and that’s what the city wants.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.