Who Is The Real Eric Garcetti?

As politicians go, L.A.’s mayor is smart and capable, but it’s not clear what makes him tick

Early one overcast morning in March, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s black Yukon pulls up to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. “Welcome to L.B.,” he says as he pops
 out of the car in a dark blue suit and extends a hand to me. Looking younger than his 45 years and wearing his trademark half smile, he’s three years into his first term running Los Angeles, but today he’s traveling outside the city limits for a three-hour confab with other mayors from across the county.


Inside, mayors from West Hollywood, Long Beach, and Glendale are drinking coffee and nibbling bran muffins, ready to discuss transit projects and the minimum wage. “Research shows that higher wages attract better workers,” he tells his colleagues, who are crowded around a table. “Low-wage areas become pockets of poverty.” Garcetti (who abstains from coffee; it makes him sleepy, he says) relishes this kind of forum because he can share his encyclopedic knowledge of economic policy with an audience that actually likes to get wonky. It’s also the kind of regional platform that can help launch a campaign for governor.

There’s a larger crowd at Ports O’ Call Village, the rundown retail strip by the Port of L.A. Garcetti is here for the unveiling of a massive redevelopment plan. With seemingly no prep, he skips from car to stage, and when it’s his turn at the microphone, he holds forth movingly about what the project will do for a rebounding San Pedro—“where the neighborhood meets the world,” he says—as a cargo ship slides by in the background. A member of his press team, watching from the audience, almost sighs as he says what I’ve heard from other aides: They sweat to prepare his speeches only to watch him ad-lib more eloquent lines of his own. And then do it again in Spanish. Wayne Ratkovich, whose company is overseeing the project, is up next. “Now I have to do something no one in Los Angeles ever wants to do: follow Eric Garcetti to the podium,” he says.

By midafternoon we’re readying to leave for a meeting in Watts when a white-haired policeman leans into the Yukon’s window to tell the mayor his remarks were “beautiful.” At moments like this it’s hard not to be swept up in Garcetti’s abundant optimism, where everything in Los Angeles seems to have a rainbow over it, even as we drive to Watts.

What is odd is how quickly the rainbow can vanish. In political circles, even liberal Democratic ones, what you often hear expressed about Garcetti is frustration or befuddlement. Richard Lichtenstein, a public affairs consultant who has known him since working on campaigns for his father, former Los Angeles district attorney Gil Garcetti, says, “He’s got so much potential; it just hasn’t been unleashed.” Others are less charitable. “Nobody’s afraid of him,” one political insider tells me. Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA law professor who has litigated numerous cases on behalf of the homeless, puts it this way: “With the mayor, it’s frustrating because he says all the right stuff; he’s just not effective at moving from policy to product.”

The discontent surely owes something to the nature of politics, where idealism and pragmatism often butt heads, but there’s more to it than that. Talk to enough people in and around City Hall, and what becomes clear is that Garcetti—eminently approachable, social media savvy, a child of L.A. who can speak to a range of constituencies—remains fundamentally unknowable. People see what he backs as a politician, but they don’t see what he’s willing to fight for. And they aren’t sure what drives him, whether he is more about ambition, using L.A. as a stepping-stone, or about a sense of mission to shape a better city. Because while there are many sides to Eric Garcetti, they don’t add up to a simple political portrait.

The Pragmatist

Garcetti speaks downtown at the launch of a campaign to register Latino voters

When Antonio Villaraigosa was mayor, he enjoyed a certain kind of celebrity. He was the first Latino to hold the office in L.A. in more than a century. He liked to talk about his bad-boy days, before education redeemed him. Having spent time in Sacramento and known as a ladies’ man, Villaraigosa fit the mold of a lot of politicians: promising yet too flawed to instill trust. He was perpetually swinging for the fences but rarely connecting. His first years were marked by gambits to wrest control of public education from the school board, to end gridlock, and to give away a million trees. Eight years later, he couldn’t declare much of a victory with any of those.

Garcetti didn’t want to be that guy. “This entire administration is in reaction to Antonio,” says Dan Schnur, the head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “There’s an implicit slight.” In Garcetti’s early days, a million trees became something of a meme. “If anything we proposed sounded remotely like a million trees, everyone’s eyes rolled,” says Rick Cole, who spent two years as Garcetti’s deputy mayor for budget and innovation.

Fixing potholes, reducing call wait times at city offices, improving trash pickup—issues that had been ignored for years—was how Garcetti wanted to rekindle Angelenos’ faith in local government. In June 2013, as he stood on the steps of City Hall to deliver his inaugural address, he told the crowd that as their “back-to-basics mayor,” he would drag “a rotary-phone government into the smartphone era.”

It is to Garcetti’s considerable credit that he’s chosen to focus on fixing the fundamentals rather than flee from them. The city is burdened with layers of dysfunction. As a senior official in the Villaraigosa administration says, “You have to understand, it’s a fucking miracle your trash gets picked up.”

“From the bottom to the top, there was no management culture here,” Garcetti says, pouring me water from a glass carafe one afternoon. We’re sitting on the white couches in his office suite on the third floor of City Hall as he describes how he asked his 35 general managers to reapply for their jobs. He also insisted on performance reviews, written goals, and a list of metrics by which to judge their departments. “One-third embraced it, a third were like, ‘OK, whatever,’ and a third were like, ‘No thanks.’ ” He replaced nine.

Garcetti has rolled out lots of little things intended to make life in Los Angeles more livable, from distributing more public trash cans to repaving more streets. Before this mayor, the city had no way of recording the number of potholes it was filling; all it knew was the number of hours its road crews logged. The waiting time for a permit at the Department of Building and Safety has fallen dramatically. People who come through the office receive a follow-up phone call asking them to assess the service.

In a city whose government remains choked with bureaucracy, small improvements don’t necessarily come easily. They don’t generate much political opposition, either, which suits Garcetti’s “overall aversion to risk,” says USC’s Schnur. But the mayor will have to put more on the line if he truly wants to reform city government. Because of red tape, it takes on average 373 days to hire someone. Nearly one employee out of every six on the 44,000-person city payroll is off the job on workers’ compensation. For the police and fire departments the number is one in three. The annual cost to the city is $200 million. Signing a contract with a vendor for, say, new parking meters requires drafting an economic analysis, approval from the city attorney’s office, and a vote from the city council. If matters go well, a contract can be awarded in 462 days. If a losing bidder files a grievance, it can stretch to 800 or more.

The mayor has a team trying to design a new procurement process, but with a government as spread out as the city itself, inefficiency is built into the system. To help remove some of the mystery of what happens within the walls of city government, Garcetti’s office created Los Angeles Open Data, a Web site that provides citizens with numbers on everything from traffic accidents to expenditures to how many calls a department was able to answer. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation have given it high marks for the sheer quantity of information it offers. Making the details user friendly is a trickier task. Kat Karimi, of the Civic Innovation Lab, which collaborated with the mayor’s office on early versions of the Web site, says, “I think they are still figuring out internally how to present this to the public. It’s a work in progress.”

Garcetti’s pursuit of tech-based efficiency was inspired in part by New York’s Michael Bloomberg. Among big-city mayors, the billionaire acquired cultlike status for the way he corralled the sprawling apparatus of city government into a tight, centralized operation. Garcetti made a pilgrimage to Bloomberg’s “bull pen,” where the mayor and city managers sat in cubicles beneath an oversize screen that broadcast stats on crime, transit, housing, and the like.

In L.A. general managers gather every Monday for a cabinet meeting with the mayor. It’s an opportunity to learn about new initiatives and share data-driven examples of how they are meeting their goals. At the last cabinet meeting in February, the main item on the agenda is the unveiling of a new app—the administration has launched nine—that enables sanitation trucks to pinpoint debris on the streets. Previously trucks would respond only when citizens complained. Better-off neighborhoods would light up the switch- board; poor neighborhoods wouldn’t.

Leo Martinez, the assistant director of sanitation, walks the group through the technology, explaining how in order to create the map, employees had to drive every street in the city twice with dashboard cameras. “How do you know when the debris is a homeless encampment?” someone asks. (The city has been sued for dismantling encampments.) Sometimes you don’t, he says. But the app tells the department exactly where the garbage is piling up, helping the mayor move a step closer to a goal of providing uniform levels of service across the city. It’s not sexy, but flash isn’t the point. Efficiency is.

The Hipster

Garcetti visits the soon-to-open Expo Line to Santa Monica
Garcetti visits the soon-to-open Expo Line to Santa Monica

Maarten De Boer

In a universe of stale, musty politicians, voters glom onto any glimpse of humanity they can find in their leaders. That’s probably how Garcetti was tagged with the moniker “the hipster mayor.” Precisely groomed, with a posture as perfect as his enunciation, he is not easily confused with some dude wearing a beanie and Japanese sleeves. But he’s always had just enough of a nose for popular culture to seem like the cool dad in the car line.

When he emerged as a candidate in the 2001 city council race, Garcetti and his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, were restoring a midcentury house in Echo Park; they grew their own vegetables. After winning, he started a blog (a rarity among politicians at the time). Later his office put together a mobile app that enabled constituents to report potholes and graffiti and to schedule trash pickups. He pushed to create what would become the Silver Lake Meadow, a patch of land that features a jogging path and fields where on any given morning yoga instructors lead classes—all the trappings of the new urbanist lifestyle. “There was no part of it that was ‘Hey, how do we cultivate 26-year-olds writing screenplays while listening to LCD Soundsystem?’” says Josh Kamensky, who served as Garcetti’s communications director during the meadow project. “It was just an effort to use public space in a smarter way.”

Not that Garcetti, a talented jazz pianist, hasn’t used music to reach constituents. On election night of his 2009 city council race, he briefly took over the keyboards with the nine-piece soul and funk band at his party at the Avalon. As a mayoral candidate, he played with Moby, ran a fund-raiser with DJ Steve Aoki, and installed that much-photographed piano in his City Hall office. When The New York Times wrote its first profile of him after the mayoral election, it was about the arty photos he posted on Instagram.

If Garcetti has ever misstepped with the hipster thing, it was when he gave his congratulatory speech after the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2014. “There are two rules in politics,” he said. “They say never ever be pictured with a drink in your hand and never swear.” Hoisting his beer in Staples Center, he landed with “But this is a big fucking day.” It was one of the first times the mayor had a national stage on television, and the moment seemed utterly scripted.

He does better striving for less, like with the “101 Slow Jam” video he starred in this past February, when part of the 101 freeway was to be closed as demolition began on the 6th Street Viaduct. Delivering a soulful spoken-word riff about traffic (“the 101 freeway east of downtown will take a break for 40 hours of R&R—and R&B”) while backed by kids from a high school jazz band, he managed to craft a public service announcement that cut through the clutter with humor and a dose of self-mockery. “Thank you, Roosevelt,” he signed off, “for making that slightly less awkward.” Even trolls gave him credit in their online comments.

The Overachiever

Each Monday the mayor holds a meeting with his managers, including LAFD chief of staff Sean Malinowski (far right) Ana Guerrero, Garcetti's chief of staff, sits beside him.
Each Monday the mayor holds a meeting with his managers, including LAFD chief of staff Sean Malinowski (far right) Ana Guerrero, Garcetti’s chief of staff, sits beside him.

Maarten De Boer

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture an SNL skit with someone spoofing Eric Garcetti. It’s difficult. Though he’s supremely ambitious, he doesn’t lend himself to caricature. He succeeds, but without the sharp-elbowed machinations of a striver: Rhodes Scholar, Ivy League degrees, former lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. Garcetti is not only the city’s youngest mayor in a century but its first Jewish mayor, too—and probably its most ethnically diverse.

Success is woven into the family fabric. Gil Garcetti grew up poor in South L.A., but he was ascending the ranks in the district attorney’s office by the time his son was born. Eric’s mother, Sukey, is the daughter of a successful clothier and ran the civic-minded Roth Family Foundation while raising Eric and his older sister (a lawyer who works in the L.A. County Probation Department). Gil remembers how when Eric was in a piano competition, he looked stricken as other kids grabbed prizes for third, second, and first place. Then the emcee announced that they’d decided to confer a special grand prize for Eric.

Eric thrived at Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake), the prestigious Studio City prep school. “He was an impressive guy—in everything he does, all the way,” says Lewis MacAdams, who was one of his creative writing teachers and is the founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River. Before graduating, Eric traveled to Ethiopia as part of a human rights mission, distributing medicine in villages that had no health care. “So that kind of puts things in perspective in life, if you’re 16, as much as anything does,” he tells me.

He was a freshman at Columbia when Gil was demoted by D.A. Ira Reiner, a curious move that caught the attention of the press. “Dad, you’ve offered me some good advice over the years,” Eric told him over the phone. “Can I offer you some? Don’t do or say anything. It will just come off as bitter.” Recalling the conversation, Gil says, “Wow. A 17-year-old giving me seasoned, thoughtful advice.” When Eric was finishing his senior year and already studying for a master’s degree in international affairs, he returned home to help his father defeat Reiner to become D.A. (Gil’s own downfall would be spurred by his office’s botched prosecution of O.J. Simpson.)

Winning a Rhodes Scholarship was next on the list of achievements. It was on the red-eye to England (the program is based in Oxford) that he met Wakeland. She was a fellow Rhodes Scholar, about the only experience she had in common with Garcetti. Wakeland was raised with two siblings (and later two step-siblings) in Indiana by her mother. “My mom worked hard to keep the lights on and to keep the gas on, and sometimes they weren’t on, and sometimes we were behind on the rent,” she said to the Los Angeles Times in a rare interview (my interview request was declined). Wakeland lived in more than a dozen homes, going to almost as many schools, and she was the first in her family to attend college.

In Los Angeles she was said to be like a general charging into battle when she served as campaign field director during Garcetti’s run for the city council. They married in 2009. Forty-six years old, Wakeland is known for a demeanor that is the opposite of the mayor’s. “She is fierce,” says Torie Osborn, a deputy mayor under Villaraigosa who has worked with Wakeland on various initiatives.

Wakeland recruited many of Garcetti’s top aides. Her fingerprints are on some of his most progressive policy initiatives, such as insisting that at least half of the city commissioners be women and establishing a citywide hike in the minimum wage (an issue she’d been working on for years with nonprofits). And it was Wakeland who trudged through the paperwork that enabled the couple to become foster parents to numerous children, including Maya, the baby they wound up adopting. Wakeland’s constant oversight of her husband’s schedule means that most days the mayor is home either to drive Maya, who is four, to preschool or tuck her in at night.

The Idealist

The mayor talking to people during a visit to the Crenshaw Line
The mayor talking to people during a visit to the Crenshaw Line

Maarten De Boer

Spend a day with Garcetti and it can be difficult to see why anyone would complain about him. He listens attentively. No matter the subject, if it relates to city government, he has an answer, a plan, an initiative. After hearing him deliver several speeches, I throw him a softball while we’re in the Yukon: His proudest accomplishment? He has a pat response—getting government back on track. Then he stiffens. “That first year, when people said, ‘You don’t have any bold ambitions,’ ” he says. “Really? ” Garcetti ticks off the list: a plan to connect light-rail to LAX, a sweeping earthquake retrofit that will help shore up thousands of buildings, that new minimum wage law. Somehow the changes haven’t come through quite the way he wanted. For the “journalists, politicians,” he complains, “those stories have already been written.” And so they are demanding “ ‘Give us something new.’ Sometimes people just want to know ‘What’s the fight?’ ”

It’s true that the mayor has put his weight behind transformative projects, even if some of those projects didn’t start with him. Garcetti, who sits on Metro’s board, was one of several who proposed linking the rail network to LAX. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the L.A. River, completed a feasibility study in 2013 that examined four plans—ranging in cost from $374 million to $1 billion—to restore wetlands and remove concrete along an 11-mile stretch that ends in downtown. Garcetti traveled to Washington to lobby for the most ambitious option and prevailed. “It’s an issue of environmental justice,” he argued. L.A. was committed to footing the bill for half, but the price tag has climbed to $1.4 billion, and even if Congress approves a proposal for federal funding, the city’s share is likely to be $900 million—a tall order, given the various demands on the budget.

One of Garcetti’s talents is his ability to stitch these separate projects into one grand design. Rail to LAX, a revitalized river—together they make Los Angeles a stronger contender to host the 2024 Summer Games. Garcetti’s winning pitch to the city council after Boston dropped out as the country’s choice for the Olympics host city is that the Los Angeles Organizing Committee can turn a profit on the Games, as it did in 1984.

If the city’s bid does beat out Rome, Budapest, and Paris, Garcetti might also be able to establish some momentum with another ambitious plan, one that is wholly his. The Great Streets program focuses on 15 stretches of major roadway that run through various urban centers, from Gaffey Street in San Pedro to Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima. The idea is to have shop owners and residents decide on enhancements they’d want—wider sidewalks, parklets, murals. The roots of the program stretch back to Garcetti’s time as a city councilman, when his office blocked off a wedge of roadway beside a weedy patch of grass, covered it in polka dots, and created Sunset Triangle Plaza, a pedestrian zone with café tables and a farmers’ market. Garcetti was smitten. Great Streets was his first executive directive as mayor, and I’ve seen him get doe-eyed talking about giving locals a say in the design of their neighborhood. Some areas have experimented with temporarily permitting crosswalks to cut diagonally across intersections or blocking off parking spaces to provide room for bike lanes. Others have remained stuck in the planning phase. Three years into the program, a section of Reseda Boulevard in Northridge with a painted sidewalk, bright yellow street furniture, and a bike lane remains the only street with noteworthy permanent enhancements. The process, which was intended to bring everyone to the table, can seem interminable.

There’s another obstacle, one that promises to require far more resources than it has so far: You can’t have great streets if they are lined with the tents of homeless people. During Garcetti’s administration, the homeless population in the city has risen by 18 percent, to more than 28,000. There were homeless people before Garcetti was mayor, and there will be homeless people after he leaves office, but his ability to mitigate the crisis may prove to be the greatest test of his career.

For progressives, homelessness resides at the confluence of humanistic concern and faith in the government’s ability to find a solution. Which is why so many have been puzzled by the city’s halting effort. Shortly after becoming mayor, Garcetti took up a challenge issued by the White House to end veterans’ homelessness before 2016. More than 2,500 vets lived on L.A.’s streets at the time, and housing them had become a priority for the new secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, who poured resources into the effort. Garcetti’s office helped the Veterans Administration house several thousand, but it was forced to push back its initial deadline and now hopes to end the problem by the end of this year.

City Hall has had more difficulty developing a clear vision to shrink the general homeless population. In April 2015, Miguel Santana, L.A.’s city administrative officer, released a report that was close to an indictment of the city’s response: The 15 entities that dealt with the homeless didn’t coordinate much with one another or with county agencies, and although L.A. was spending more than $100 million a year on homelessness, only a fraction was earmarked specifically for it, with about $80 million going to the police. In July of that year Garcetti went to skid row and said that his office was close to releasing a homelessness “battle plan.” In September, with still no plan released, Garcetti stood alongside seven city council members outside City Hall, where they announced their intention to declare a homelessness “state of emergency.” Several homeless men sprawled on a lawn nearby. Quibbles over what constitutes a state of emergency—and what it would achieve—followed, and the mayor backpedaled.

In May the city council approved Garcetti’s $138 million plan for more housing and services for the homeless, a fourfold increase over what had officially been allotted before. Half of the money would come from future asset sales or fees levied on developers; however, the city council has yet to OK the move, raising concerns that the money won’t fully materialize.

When I ask Garcetti whether he moved on the issue quickly enough, he says, stiffening again, “I just made it a priority to bring people together. A year ago city and county weren’t talking to each other. A year ago the city council didn’t have a standing committee dealing with this. A year ago people didn’t connect homelessness with a lot of other issues.”

“The problem is we had plenty of good ideas,” says Blasi, the retired UCLA law professor. “What we don’t have is very much willingness to expend political capital. The mayor has made more promises than other people.”

Two city councilmen plan to put a bond measure on the November ballot—the quickest way, they say, to generate the $1.8 billion the city needs over a decade to reach its homelessness goals. Garcetti says he’s “open” to such solutions, but he isn’t campaigning for it yet. This next ballot asks voters to pony up for other things; adding another request could make the odds dubious. Which is to say, it’s risky.

The Fence Mender

Garcetti in a moment of prayer at Leimert Park
Garcetti in a moment of prayer at Leimert Park

Maarten De Boer

To fight or to negotiate? The question has itself spawned countless political brawls. When Barack Obama sought consensus, Democrats faulted him for being weak. When former House Speaker John Boehner brooked no compromise, he was faulted for being obstructionist. Garcetti clearly subscribes to the consensus school.

Charlie Beck, the chief of police, says, “He’s much more collaborative and much less dictatorial” than previous mayors. Other general managers say Garcetti gives them leeway and encouragement, which can foster a pleasant, productive work environment. Under his watch as city council president, the political body was almost eerily devoid of dissent. An analysis during the first seven months of 2009 by a think tank found that in 1,854 votes, all but 13 were unanimous.

During the mayoral race, one refrain was that Garcetti was too agreeable to run the city. While there was little ideological daylight between him and city controller Wendy Greuel, his main opponent, she won most of municipal labor’s support, notably the influential union representing the Department of Water and Power. In a crowded hall where county labor leaders were deciding their endorsement, Garcetti launched into a nuanced rebuttal to something. “Don’t you Rhode Scholar me!” bellowed Marvin Kropke, one of the union leaders. The Greuel campaign briefly put up a Web site labeling him “Prince Eric” and poking fun at his privileged upbringing. The vitriol he encountered on the trail stung Garcetti.

When he won, says Gary Toebben, the CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, “I thought he would be less beholden to the entrenched interests,” by which he means the public sector unions like those at the DWP. And during Garcetti’s first months in office he succeeded in negotiating a tougher labor deal for the DWP that blocked raises for three years.

But then he went out of his way to patch up any lingering quarrels. He’s provided positions to four of the candidates who ran against him, including Greuel. “Campaigns are these moments of suspended animation where people usually learn how to be friends afterward,” Garcetti says by way of explanation. He counts Brian D’Arcy as a friend, even though the head of the main DWP union spent more than $3 million to support Greuel and attack him. He says Kropke, the union leader, has become a supporter, too.

To many observers, Garcetti’s habit of extending an olive branch can come off as weakness or political calculation—an unwillingness to have enemies who could harm him in future elections. Moreover, some argue that this tendency toward mending fences leads to indecision and undercuts his ability to force change. “One of the reasons we didn’t support him in the business community is that he can’t make tough decisions,” says Toebben. “It almost pains him.”

As council president, Garcetti drafted Lloyd Greif, the founder of a successful boutique investment bank, and others to analyze the impact of the city’s much loathed gross receipts tax, an anachronistic levy that charges businesses based on revenues rather than profits. Their conclusion was that the tax, which brings in about half a billion dollars a year, did more harm than good by chasing companies out of the city.

Phasing out the tax became a central plank of Garcetti’s campaign. Council members resisted, however, so Garcetti settled for reducing the top tax rate and allowing a few exemptions. Greif felt betrayed. “The mayor was in his first year in office, and he wasn’t looking to pick a fight with the city council,” he says. “He didn’t expend the kind of political capital needed on this or show the kind of leadership necessary.”

When I ask Garcetti about this back in his office, he becomes impatient. It wasn’t his responsibility, he insists; it was up to Greif and the business community to lobby for the tax to be phased out. “I think the coalition did not build a single vote on the city council for that; I certainly made it a priority.” Then he equivocates, saying, “We probably couldn’t have responsibly started year one with that plan, given the city’s budget situation.”

The Candidate

Garcetti visits a community celebration for the future Crenshaw Line
Garcetti visits a community celebration for the future Crenshaw Line

From the start of Garcetti’s time as mayor, there was speculation that City Hall would be a mere pit stop on his way to the governor’s mansion. The distrust isn’t unique to Garcetti—ambition and capability in a politician often seem at odds with trustworthiness—but it isn’t going away, either.

Mitchell Schwartz wants the mayor to pledge that he would serve a full term if reelected. A public affairs consultant who worked in the State Department under president Bill Clinton, Schwartz is one of the two contenders who’ve emerged so far in the 2017 mayoral race. The other is Steve Barr, who used to head the charter school company Green Dot. He charges that Garcetti’s aspirations cause him to shy away from trying to address the city’s more intractable problems, beginning with the sorry state of its public schools. “His leadership approach is ‘I stay in my lane, hope nobody asks me about it, then I go onto my next thing,’ ” says Barr. “But education is our economic driver, it’s our crime rates, it’s everything. To say it’s not my job is a cop-out.”

Neither Barr nor Schwartz is expected to present much of a contest. Garcetti’s campaign chest is overflowing, with checks from Steven Spielberg, philanthropist Eli Broad, developer Sonny Astani, and the investment firm of former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. Though homelessness will be an ongoing issue, as it is in other cities, it’s unlikely to cost him the election, and he has indeed kept enemies to a minimum. What Garcetti does risk doing is alienating his supporters if he were to turn around abruptly to run in the 2018 governor’s race.

Garcetti is uncharacteristically awkward on the topic, telling me, “I have not yet sat down and done any hard thinking about governor,” pausing as if unsure how to finish the thought. “But I certainly know that the work that I’m doing for L.A….and leading a lot of coalitions statewide that provides California cities some of the common help they need. But right now I’m not.”

That neither opponent boasts the name recognition or financial backing to mount a serious threat means that Garcetti would need to crush them (with something close to 70 percent of the vote) if he wanted enough momentum for a viable statewide race. Otherwise he’d be entering under the cloud of having received only a weak mandate from his hometown.

The math is much the same if Garcetti were to run for Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat, provided the 82-year-old doesn’t seek a fifth term. That race, too, is in 2018. And the next mayoral term is an anomaly, stretching to five-and-a-half years instead of the usual four. (The change is the result of realigning city elections, which had fallen in odd years, to coincide with national congressional elections, which draw higher voter turnout than municipal elections.)

As for Schwartz’s question—would he be willing to serve a full second term as mayor?— Garcetti says only this: “I don’t know. This job is interesting every day and fun most days. It is impactful every single day. I definitely want to run for a second term.” Then he adds, “It’s not the usually coy response.”

The Enigma

Garcetti visits the LAPD gun buyback
Garcetti visits the LAPD gun buyback

Maaten De Boer

Often a candidate’s true nature comes out during the friction of a campaign, when they define who they are by contrasting themselves with their opponents. In Garcetti’s last run, what emerged was his talent and likability. He’s too smart to seem a lightweight, despite being almost perpetually sunny. He has the sheen of a politician but not much of the oiliness. Where other politicians walk around your policy questions, Garcetti answers them. In detail. Yet there remains the question of what drives the guy, what he’d really go to the mat for. The answer has a lot to do with the future of L.A.

It’s the afternoon of the mayor’s meeting-marathon. Soon we will be visiting a Community Safety Partnership program in Watts, which embeds cops in public housing projects; the goal is for the police to be members of the neighborhood rather than an occupying force.

To reach the officers Garcetti must traverse a gymnasium where he is mobbed by kids, who tug on his sleeve and shower him with questions. He jokes and smiles, posing for more selfies. Someone hands him a basketball, and doffing his suit jacket, he shoots a few, missing each time. No one seems to notice. Out on the playground a dozen officers are waiting. “How does it feel? Does it feel like you’re making a difference or just holding back the tide?” he asks. One by one the officers describe how their day-in, day-out presence here enables them to get to know the residents and defuse tensions before they escalate.

Next we’ll swing by a community meeting where Garcetti, who is behind schedule, exchanges hugs and promises to visit again. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Watts,” he’ll tell me in the SUV. “It encapsulates both the promise and the perils of the city.”

As we pull out of Watts and move onto the 110 freeway, the downtown skyline rises before us and the reddish glow of the setting sun reflects off the glass skyscrapers. Garcetti says at some point, “What I think the average person wants is not a fight; they want to see something move forward in their own neighborhood.” By lining up against something, he acknowledges, his predecessor made it easier for voters to understand what he was for, even if his actions produced scant results. Many of Garcetti’s big plans had languished under previous administrations. But whether it was the river, or getting rail to the airport, most of them enjoyed popular support. He hasn’t tried to move the public in a direction it was reluctant to go, but he’ll have to if he wants to find the money to make those projects a reality while also cleaning up government and housing the homeless.

The Yukon lurches into the fast lane, and I ask what he might have done differently in his first term. “I don’t live life with a ton of regrets,” he says. “I think in a couple areas I could have laid out vision more quickly. In some areas with staff, I realized, they’re actually waiting for me to just tell them. And that’s what I was elected to do.”

It’s a frank assessment, one that doesn’t apply just to his staff.

The question is whether a second term will enable Garcetti to lay out a clearer vision from the start and to act on it—even if it means making some enemies along the way. That’s assuming he even sticks around. Now that Jerry Brown has put the state’s finances back in order, Sacramento is looking to be a fairly low-risk proposition.