“You can plop me down anywhere in this 4-million-person metropolis, and I have a personal and intense connection,” Councilman Eric M. Garcetti said.
Taken on its face, the statement seems brash, or just so much braggadocio. At the very least, it sounds like political hyperbole, but the statement is pretty well documented.
He is of Russian-Jewish descent on his mother’s side and Mexican-Italian descent on his father’s side. But there are also Irish genes from a great-great grandfather.
As a Rhodes Scholar, he studied in England, and his dissertation was written on the Eritrean Revolution, a country in the Horn of Africa.
His grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in East Los Angeles, but his father was raised in South Los Angeles. Garcetti himself grew up for 17 years of his life in the San Fernando Valley. His parents now live in West Los Angeles, and he lives in Silver Lake, near the center of the city.
Garcetti’s district covers Silver Lake, Echo Park, Hollywood and Filipino Town. In his district are diverse enclaves of Mexicans, Filipinos, Central Americans, Armenians, Thais and others.
His bio says he has worked in England, Burma, Ethiopia and the United States as a human rights advocate. It also says he’s a professor, a jazz pianist, a composer and, like his dad, a photographer. He speaks fluent Spanish, but practices Judaism.
During his undergraduate years at Columbia University, he directed a group called Black Men for Anita Hill. The group’s purpose was to bring together African American professors in defense of the embattled African American Oklahoma University law professor who had charged during Senate Judiciary Confirmation hearings that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
(Nevertheless, the Senate went on to confirm Thomas as the second African American justice of the Supreme Court, succeeding Thurgood Marshall.)
While at Columbia, Garcetti met and befriended Ben Jealous, now president of the NAACP. In fact, he credits Jealous, a Rhodes Scholar, for encouraging him to apply for the scholarship, which he was awarded on his second try.
Garcetti, 41, has served four terms as councilman for the 13th District, the most he can serve, so in roughly a year and three months he must move on. He’s betting that he will be city’s next mayor.
Garcetti’s father, Gil Garcetti, spent 32 years in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and was elected district attorney twice. However, Garcetti the son says he wasn’t influenced to get into politics because of his dad nor did he grow up with a desire to be in politics.
“People assume I grew up in politics, but my dad didn’t run for district attorney until the year I graduated from college,” he says. “The same year I won the Rhodes Scholarship is the year he won. At elementary, junior high, high school I was just some anonymous kid in Los Angeles.”
After returning from study in England, he still wasn’t sure.
“I knew I wanted to be in public service” he said. “I thought maybe I’d work in the human rights field, or maybe I’d start a nonprofit. It wasn’t until I came back and was living back in Los Angeles, in a new neighborhood in the center of the city, where somebody suggested to me, ‘Hey, you should run for City Council.’”
It may be due to his own extensive travels that Garcetti views Los Angeles as “the most global city.”
“Los Angeles is the most diverse collection of human beings that’s ever been assembled in history,” he says. “If you look at the number of countries and ethnicities and languages–people come from all across America, all across the world. I would say it is the most global city we’ve ever experienced. But it also is a place where people understand neighborhood better than anywhere else.
“. . . You can come from anywhere in America and anywhere in the world and your first hour in Los Angeles you’re going to find something familiar. You can live here your entire life, or even fourth generation, like me, and walk five minutes in a different direction and see something you’ve never seen before. So it both feels like home and a place where there’s constant reinvention and reinvigoration.”
What of the city’s problems:
“The city has lost its confidence in a way,” he says. “We’ve always been defined by our optimism. That’s the Los Angeles I grew up in. That’s the Los Angeles my parents, my grandparents and great grandparents grew up in. But I think we, right now, face the toughest economic climate in my lifetime in Los Angeles, and our No. 1 challenge is getting people back to work. In all communities, in all neighborhoods.
“Second, a major challenge is making sure that we get our budget and our finances back on track, because we can’t provide the services that the city [needs] if we don’t deal with these economic challenges like any business or family does.
“Third, I would say we face the challenge of livability. We’ve always enjoyed great weather, great geography, great people. Now it’s time to focus at the local level–one neighborhood at a time and build neighborhoods with great schools, great parks, vibrant business districts and good public transportation.”
Garcetti has stated that he’s running for mayor to get the city’s economy back on track. He mentions that Hollywood “was a ghost of its past” when he became councilman, “a place where the average tourist stayed for 23 minutes,” took a few pictures, but “seeing all the crime and grime would get back on the bus and leave.” But it’s now a place where people are staying two and three nights. Business is back and a number of small business are back, he says.
That same phenomenon has been duplicated in other neighborhoods in his district, and now they are some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city.
His formula for restoring business is to cut the red tape, including getting rid of the city’s business tax, and use government assistance–economic development money, tax credits–to support key industries that are going to grow.
He mentions that he and Councilman Herb Wesson smoothed the way for Coda, a new electric car company to come to Los Angeles, by helping the company obtain and “build out” an old warehouse in the area.
A third area is job training for youth and people who are out of work. When he took over the Economic Development Committee, Garcetti says he looked at the industries that were growing–healthcare, technology, the green technology, construction–and focused on those. In construction, they discovered that African Americans were no longer in the construction trades, which are good middle-class jobs. He said there was no pipeline from the high schools to the building trades. So he and others set up job-training programs with the unions. “We have a few thousand African Americans now in the building trades,” he said.