LA’s renaissance mayor and Democrat rising star is taking on homelessness, transport and Trump.
It’s a rare, boisterous day at Los Angeles city hall. Helicopters clatter through a bright sky; below, hundreds of protesters wave banners and chant slogans. Yet inside the third-floor sanctuary of mayor Eric Garcetti – cotton-white walls with oak mouldings and gracefully hung modern art – all is calm. It’s Trump they’re shouting about, not him.
There are reasons for his glow. A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (where he met his wife, Amy Wakeland) Garcetti has, with other Democrat mayors, entered the national psyche as a leading light of the anti-Trump opposition. After we talk he takes the stage on the city hall steps to deliver his message under a banner declaring, simply, “Resist.”
Garcetti, re-elected to a second term in March with 82 per cent of the vote, is not your grizzly big-city boss of old. Instead he is a renaissance mayor with clean-cut jaw, sharp suit and talents for music and photography. The evening before saw him conducting the Los Angeles Inner City Youth Orchestra playing the Star Wars theme; his candid shots of urban life have earned him 90,000 Instagram followers.
These are hobbies, he says, that make him more authentic to voters. That doesn’t mean his first term as chief executive of the US’s second-largest city wasn’t mostly about the grind of passing legislation. Early criticism that the one-time councilman and son of former DA Gil Garcetti – whose career was undone by OJ Simpson’s acquittal – was too timid has faded.
On his watch, LA voters have approved repeated tax hikes to fund initiatives they hope will improve quality of life in their famously sprawling metropolis, including $120bn (€107bn) over four decades to double the size of the region’s mass-transit system and, hopefully, change “Car Car Land” for ever. He also won approval for a $1.2bn (€1.1bn) bond to solve another problem that has vexed his city: homelessness. Angelenos should learn in September, meanwhile, whether they have won the right – if it’s still considered a victory – to host the Olympics in 2024.
A quirk in the calendar means Garcetti still has five-and-a-half years to remake Los Angeles in the manner he envisions: “A long runway,” as he puts it. That assumes, of course, that his recent electoral success and growing profile don’t propel him to seek either statewide office – the governorship of California comes up next year – or perhaps something more ambitious. His is among the names already mentioned as possible candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020 to try to make sure Trump’s runway is four years long, not eight.
MONOCLE: Has homelessness become one of the most visible quality-of-life challenges in your city – and how are you dealing with it?
Eric Garcetti: Homelessness is the moral issue of our time. The combination of cheap drugs, high housing costs and other social factors have led to an explosion of homelessness up and down the West Coast. We passed the two largest measures in US history: one to build housing, the other to provide services. Over the next decade I think we can end street homelessness in Los Angeles.
M: Last year voters agreed to a sales-tax hike to pay for more spending on public-transport infrastructure. Can you end the car culture here and how will it affect people’s wellbeing?
EG: We’re at an inflection point, from ride-share to public-transit investments and new technologies. This was the largest initiative in US history times two: $120bn [€107bn] for 15 new rail lines. LA has become so spread out that public transport hasn’t worked. This will. Plus we have put a lot of money aside for what’s next, whether it’s tunnels with Elon Musk or flying cars – I think that day is not too far away – and LA will be at the cutting edge.
M: You have introduced several tax increases in a few months. Is that a political miracle?
EG: Actually, six. We did it for community colleges, for our parks, for our public transit and two homeless measures. It is not a new miracle. I think it speaks of the trust that exists in LA between the governed and the governing. These were votes of the people in a state where two-thirds need to say yes for a tax measure to move forward. People are realising that the long-term cost of living cheaply in the short term is too high and we need to solve these problems.
M: LA has been blighted by urban sprawl and haphazard development. Can that be fixed?
EG: We won’t be passive when it comes to planning and we won’t do it behind closed doors. I’ve banned private meetings between developers and the commissioners who vote on their plans. All our community plans will be updated; that’s 35 mega-regions of the city that will have a blueprint for growth. Once people would flee the city; now everybody wants to be in the centre. We can’t build housing or transit fast enough but voters have given us the resources to do it. It’s a tremendously exciting time to plan and live here.
M: Will LA ever be a bicycle city?
EG: It’s such a healthy city. We have lots of people who have always cycled, you just don’t see them because it is so spread out. We are going to have about 320km of bike lanes. And we have protected bike corridors such as the one along the Los Angeles River – that’s 80km alone.
M: You have been outspoken on the environment, promising to abide by the Paris Treaty even if the Trump administration does not. Why should Angelenos care about this?
EG: Washington has always followed our lead, not vice versa. We have our own utility for clean energy. We have our own building codes, which means we can conserve water and energy. We have our own transport system. This city is the number-one buyer of electric cars of any in the US. We’ve pledged to wean ourselves off coal to produce electricity by 2025. We should care because we feel the impact of this: droughts and now the wettest year on record. This is a practical issue as well as a moral issue; we feel the impact as mayors especially. I founded a group called Climate Mayors. We now have 86 cities that I help lead who are all prepared to do this work regardless of who is in the White House or on Capitol Hill.
M: You plan to dial down the city’s temperature. How is that possible?
EG: Whether it’s the paint we use on our roofs or the plants in our gardens, we are going to try to reduce the temperature by two degrees. Mayors have immense power to effect change where people actually live – the colour of the streets, the building codes you have, the water you’re allowed to use. If we’re going to save this Earth, it’s going to be the world’s mayors who take the lead.
M: You’re also out of step with Trump on immigration.
EG: I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for immigration. My grandfather was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who fought for this country and became a citizen after the Second World War. Sixty-one per cent of our local businesses are started by immigrants and a third of gdp comes from it. The cities and countries that will win in the future are the ones best connected to the world, not the ones that turn their backs and look inward.
M: Trump threatens to withhold funds from so-called sanctuary cities such as yours. Is that likely? And do you hate the idea of a border wall?
EG: The law and morality are on our side. A “sanctuary city”, as I define it, means our cops can’t be immigration enforcement agents too, which they never will be while I’m mayor. This kind of talk is making us all less safe. We had a decrease in our Latin community of reported rapes and domestic violence because, we think, people are scared to report now. The sanctuary jurisdictions are safer and have lower unemployment than non-sanctuary jurisdictions. The wall is folly but nobody begrudges a secure border. And if, in exchange for being able to strengthen the protection of people coming in, Trump provides an immigration-reform pathway to citizenship for the undocumented people who are already here, I think there are some on Capitol Hill who would be willing to take that deal.
M: With Trump in charge do you think Democrat mayors of large cities have a new responsibility to hold the line against some of his policies?
EG: US cities embody the values of this country and show the progress that’s possible. This administration talks about infrastructure; we’re doing it. They talk about jobs; we’re creating them. As for the attacks on our values, whether we are pro-immigrant, pro-lgbt or pro-women’s rights, these are things that are settled in the minds certainly of the next generation. You can’t turn back the clock, nor would we. It’s up to mayors to show that the majority of Americans don’t like what they’re seeing from this administration.
M: There is speculation you will try for statewide office next. Would you seek the Democrat nomination for president in 2020?
EG: That seems far-fetched right now. I love this job. It’s really important for us to know what can be done through our cities and important for us not to just pass measures and then say the problem is solved. I actually relish the chance to lead and to be a chief executive of this city for the next however many years because that gives me an opportunity to see this thing through. Everyone is focused on their careers; I’m focused on my city. The last thing I’d say is this: I want to make sure this nation is on a pathway to an inclusive vision of opportunity for everybody.
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