New LA mayor to 'focus like a laser' on economy

Eric Garcetti inherits 10pc unemployment and a deficit that could top US$1 billion within 4 years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 3:14am

A Rhodes scholar and urban planning expert in a city that generally prefers its politicians to be less eclectic, Los Angeles mayor-elect Eric Garcetti will take the reins as the nation's second-largest city teeters between recovery and financial ruin.

Despite a strong renewal in the city's housing market in recent months, unemployment remains higher than the state average, and the city's budget deficit could top US$1 billion within four years. Trees are going untrimmed, streets unpaved and the fire department has had its budget slashed.

Garcetti, who takes over on July 1, promised to "focus like a laser" on the local economy, and renegotiate pay raises and other deals with the city's unions. But to do that, he may have to push beyond the skills he has honed as a consensus builder and wrench changes from a city whose bureaucracy and citizenry are not used to being told what to do.

"In LA, you are constantly dealing with powerful folks that you can't order around," said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who directs the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "On the other hand, he's going to have to understand when the consensus approach isn't working."

At 42, Garcetti embodies a legacy that in many ways reflects the city's political, intellectual and ethnic subcultures. His father, Gil Garcetti, was elected district attorney of Los Angeles county when Eric was in his early 20s.

His education at the exclusive Harvard School for Boys was among the most prestigious in the region, landing him a spot at Columbia University and later, at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

Garcetti's cultural background also reflects the city's polyglot: his father is of mixed Italian and Mexican descent, and his mother is Jewish.

At 29, Garcetti ran for city council, and was elected to represent the sagging neighbourhoods of old Hollywood, then undergoing the first sparks of revitalisation, shortly after he turned 30 in 2001.

"He's got an incredible mind," said Agustin "Augie" Gorbea, a long-time Los Angeles activist in gay rights and Latino politics. "You tell him one thing, and he'll tell you five things about it."

Garcetti met his wife, Amy Wakeland, when the two were Rhodes scholars together. They remodelled a house in the funky community of Echo Park that was featured in an architectural magazine, and adopted a daughter, Maya, who is 18 months old.

On the campaign trail, Garcetti played the "urban hipster modern politician", said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, mounting an Obama-style campaign based on grass-roots activists and social media.

As mayor, Garcetti will face considerable challenges.

Unemployment in Los Angeles county hovered around 10 per cent last month, and the city has a growing deficit that could top US$1 billion within four years.

An employee pay raise of 5.5 per cent, which Garcetti helped negotiate as a council member, is due in January.

Garcetti said that among his first steps as mayor would be to ask city employees to pay a greater portion of the cost of their health care plans.

He stopped short of promising to follow the advice of outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and refuse to give union employees their raises next winter, saying it would not be legal simply to refuse the payment.

"Right now it's legally due, but it's something we will talk about," he said. "We will be talking about how to save money."