What Now? With a Mayor on the Way Out, L.A. Plunges Into the Great Unknown

A leadership void when Eric Garcetti goes to India could have serious repercussions for the city

There’s an old adage that power abhors a vacuum, the idea being that when a leadership void materializes, uncertainty follows, with the result that a battalion of players rush in and seek to take charge before an opponent can grab a toehold. Los Angeles is on the cusp of finding out how true this saying is, with potentially serious ramifications.

The impending departure of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who will skedaddle soon after the U.S. Senate approves his nomination to be President Biden’s Ambassador to India, stands to launch Los Angeles into a chasm of uncertainty. The situation won’t be properly rectified until the next mayor is inaugurated after the runoff election in November 2022.

To be clear, someone will occupy the mayoral suite once Garcetti is gone. But what sort of leadership ability that person is allowed to command, and whether he or she can be more than the lamest of ducks swimming in an ocean full of sharks, remains to be seen.

The big issue is that Los Angeles is going from essentially one person in charge, to a situation where 15 City Council members—each with alliances and varying degrees of influence—decide who they want to put in charge. While the Council could choose to schedule a special election to find the person who completes Garcetti’s term, the more likely (and far more economical and sensible) scenario is the panel appoints a caretaker or interim mayor.

This will be fraught from the get-go. With at least four council members pondering running for mayor, none is about to allow one of their rivals to get the leg up that comes with being interim mayor. At the same time, council members are unlikely to pick a caretaker willing to upstage them or take the sort of bold, independent action that upsets anyone’s pet plans. Even if a truly great temporary choice exists, personal agendas could prevent that figure from ever being installed.

In the best-case scenario, no calamities erupt, everyone gets along with only minor public squabbling, and MacGyvering the process with the political equivalent of spit and Scotch tape keeps everything copacetic until the time comes for a formal leadership transition.

However, Los Angeles City Hall doesn’t always get the best, and it is just as likely that, with a combative mayoral primary in June, there is a splintering driven by ambition and followed by incessant micromanaging. One could easily foresee a situation in which the power grab comes to resemble either the spill-into-the-open battles of Game of Thrones, or the more subtle backstabbing of Succession. Heck, there might be enough unique plot points and major and minor character arcs to spark an entirely new HBO prestige drama; one could call it Nightmare on Spring Street.

All this assumes Los Angeles doesn’t suffer a catastrophic earthquake, terrorist attack, or something else unexpected—in other words, the type of crisis where a city needs a firm hand, an unquestioned chain of command, and, when called for, a comforting presence. This, in fact, describes Garcetti in the early days of COVID; for all the slings he has suffered, the mayor was stellar when the virus slammed into L.A., acting decisively with an early lockdown that saved lives, and reassuring a frazzled city through nightly televised briefings.

If Los Angeles is lucky, the process in Washington will be molasses slow, thereby minimizing the time of temporary leadership.

The need for this person could be avoided, of course, if Garcetti would stick around until the end of his extended second term. But as has been noted before, the guy is pilloried in the media seemingly every day, the coronavirus and homelessness continue to be exhausting challenges, and he has already clocked eight years leading Los Angeles. While no one believes that he is heading to New Delhi because his country asked, it’s easy to understand why he is seizing the opportunity to escape L.A.

To be clear, his departure is not immediate—it’s not as if the City Hall key master will open the door to the mayor’s office on Friday to find that, oops, Garcetti moved out overnight. Getting confirmed will likely be a months-long process, and the mayor will be called to Washington to make nice with senators. The Biden administration probably won’t push for a vote until they are certain they can get a yes, wanting to avoid the embarrassment of a high-profile nominee getting shot down. It’s probably fall at the soonest until Garcetti departs, theoretically providing plenty of time for all involved to determine who fills the void in Los Angeles, and how much real power that person is granted.

If Los Angeles is lucky, the process in Washington will be molasses slow, thereby minimizing the time of temporary leadership. One also should assume that Garcetti, who is always considering how his present decisions are seen in the future, won’t jet to India without trying to have a say in who replaces him and how the rest of his term plays out.

This is going to be an unprecedented period, and one where the moves of many political figures are done not just for the move itself, but for the headlines and how each step plays in the context of an upcoming election. While this is always the case amid a mayor’s race, the absence of an elected leader will enhance the uncertainty. Maybe everything is swell, but the potential for naked power grabs, and the ripples those grabs cause, provides reasons for Angelenos to be afraid—very afraid.

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