Mitchell Schwartz mounts attack on Garcetti: Can it get him elected mayor of Los Angeles?
Mitchell Schwartz doesn’t think so highly of his incumbent opponent in the upcoming March 7 city election, but on one score, he admits that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has him beat.
“He’s much better looking than me,” Schwartz during a recent interview at a Silver Lake café.
Schwartz is tall and broad, with a nose that has been broken, the combined effect of which makes him look like a former boxer. He jokes that he broke his nose “fighting for the people.” (In fact, it was a series of sports injuries.) But if he is to defeat an electoral heavyweight like Garcetti, Schwartz will have to land some major political punches. By most accounts, he’s a serious underdog.
A former State Department official under President Bill Clinton, Schwartz has the best name recognition and fundraising operation among a group of seven otherwise obscure challengers, having raised nearly $450,000. The next best-funded candidate is Paul E. Amori, a homelessness activist who often appears in a red sequined suit and bow tie, who has raised $5,631. Meanwhile, Garcetti has collected more than $3.5 million for his campaign.
Badly outspent, Schwartz, who is Jewish, is mounting an unrelenting critique of the incumbent. Schwartz points out that in Los Angeles, housing prices are up. In 2016, the violent crime rate rose 10 percent, the third consecutive year-over-year increase. The number of people living on the street has been on the rise since 2009, including an 11 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 alone, and now stands above 28,000. The city faces a staggering pension liability of $8.2 billion and has a Department of Water and Power (DWP) many say is in dire need of reform. Amid all this, Schwartz alleges, Garcetti has been a nonentity, demonstrating “a complete lack of leadership.”
What’s more, Schwartz claims to know why.
“Garcetti, unfortunately, has what I call the politician’s disease,” Schwartz told the Journal. “He’s so desirous of going to higher office that instead of expending political capital on dealing with issues, he just tries to accumulate it and coast through and not deal with these tough situations.”
It’s the reason Garcetti hasn’t reformed the DWP or decentralized the city’s byzantine school district, and why he hasn’t pressured Veterans Affairs to house homeless veterans in its West L.A. campus, Schwartz said. He called Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion countywide homeless housing bond shepherded by the mayor and approved in November’s election, “obviously an election gimmick” to help Garcetti’s chances, though Schwartz said he voted for it anyway in the hope that it would help the homeless problem.
The mayor disputes the fundamental premise of Schwartz’s criticism.
“Anybody’s analysis that you can store up political capital and spend it later is a little bit naïve,” Garcetti said. “It’s not like you can keep it in a bank like money. It can change in an instant. So you better be spending it every day like I do, to do big and bold things.”
The mayor argues that just because he’s not picking fights doesn’t mean he’s standing still. “People mistake a bloody nose for accomplishments,” he said.
He cited his stewardship of a $120 billion transportation measure and a $1.2 billion homelessness bond passed on the November ballot as battles he has fought and won, along with his successful push for a $15 minimum wage.
On the veterans homelessness charge, Garcetti political strategist Bill Carrick said the mayor has “worked very hard at it. … We haven’t eradicated it but that’s the direction we’re headed.” The mayor alleges to have housed 8,000 homeless veterans and says he would solved the issue entirely if more veterans weren’t finding themselves on the streets of L.A. daily.
Schwartz’s critique extends not just to Garcetti’s actions but also the political culture he says the mayor inspired during his tenure as city council president and subsequently as mayor. He described the city’s attitude toward building and development as haphazard, painting a picture of city councilmen trading votes over code deviations. (Carrick called this accusation “just silly.”)
On Measure S, a package of slow-growth reforms on the March city ballot, Schwartz has declined to take a position, saying he’s wary of the measure’s mechanisms but understands the sentiment of communities feeling disenfranchised by the development process. The mayor, on the other hand, firmly opposes the measure.
With few vocal detractors, Garcetti could coast to an easy victory. That outcome would be unsurprising given the mayor’s celebrity persona and large network of connections — he recently received no less an endorsement than from former President Barack Obama (a somewhat awkward situation, given that Schwartz chaired Obama’s California campaign in 2008).
But it would be a mistake to treat the election as a foregone conclusion, according to Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
“Under most normal circumstances, it would be almost impossible for an insurgent like Mitchell Schwartz to mount a credible challenge against a well-liked incumbent mayor,” he said. “But these are not normal times.”
The past 18 months have sent political predictions haywire, Schnur said, foiled by widespread disgruntlement among voters. Schnur compared the mayoral race to the recent Democratic presidential primary, with Garcetti cast as Hillary Clinton and Schwartz as her firebrand challenger, Bernie Sanders.
“He wants to be the insurgent,” Schnur said of Schwartz. “He wants to be the voice of all the frustrated, angry progressives who don’t feel like they’re being heard by traditional politicians. The challenge he faces is twofold: Garcetti is not nearly as inviting a target as Clinton and Schwartz doesn’t have nearly the megaphone that Sanders had.”
In Los Angeles, disaffection among voters often is focused on the cost of housing. Measure S, for instance, finds its political base in activists who see luxury development threatening the character of L.A. neighborhoods. The city council’s willy-nilly zoning policy is “what spawned Measure S,” Schwartz said.
It may be unsurprising that Schwartz has put a critique of Garcetti front and center of his campaign.
“[As a challenger], you have to convince people that the first-term incumbent hasn’t done an especially good job to warrant a second term,” former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the Journal. But, he added, “I don’t think he can make that case against Eric Garcetti.”
If there is a winning case to be made against Garcetti, Schwartz seems determined to find it. For instance, he’s challenged Garcetti to pledge he would serve out the entirety of an unusually long 5 1/2-year term afforded by a change in election laws; Garcetti has yet to respond to that challenge.
“He’s not going to make some pledge because Mitchell Schwartz thinks somehow he’s going to get some traction from it,” Carrick said. “The job he’s running for is mayor. That’s the job he’s trying to get re-elected to.”
Few observers doubt that Garcetti eventually will seek higher office.
“Let’s face it — is there anyone who believes that after this term that he will not attempt to see if there is any opportunity for higher office?” said Frank Zerunyan, a USC professor of governance and longtime friend of Garcetti. “And to be honest, he deserves it.”
Schwartz has argued that Garcetti’s political ambitions hamper his effectiveness as mayor. “This is a steppingstone for him,” Schwartz said. “It’s not OK.”
As befits an unusual political climate, Schwartz is an unusual candidate to lead L.A.
“I never expected to [run],” he said. “Never, never, never.”
At 56, Schwartz has never held elected office. Instead, his political experience is mainly as a campaign operative.
In 1992, he managed Clinton’s presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire and subsequently became communications director for the Clinton State Department. Since then, he’s held leadership roles in public relations and environmental firms, and helped campaign for political candidates, including former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. Diane Feinstein.
Unlike Garcetti, whose religious orientation often flies under the radar despite his status as the city’s first elected Jewish mayor, Schwartz — from his name to his appearance — is unambiguously Jewish.
Growing up in an Orthodox family in Queens, N.Y., he attended the well-regarded Yeshiva of Flatbush. After moving to Los Angeles in 1996, he became involved in Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and eventually became vice president of Temple Israel of Hollywood, though he stepped down to focus on his mayoral run. He and his wife sent their three children to the temple’s elementary school.
Schwartz recognizes that he’s up against tough odds. Nonetheless, he sees an avenue, if a narrow one, to City Hall.
“We do this polling,” Schwartz said. “He’s got decent numbers. He’s got pretty good numbers. But when you push people — like, ‘Well, what has he done?’ — they cannot answer.”
A recent statement from Schwartz campaign manager Josh Kilroy alleged, based on random-sampling polls, that Schwartz’s name recognition is up. The campaign estimates the mayor is polling at around 50 percent. Meanwhile, a poll conducted by an Orange County opinion research firm from Feb. 16-19 put Garcetti’s approval at 65 percent. He needs only 51 percent of the votes to avoid a runoff.
“All I can do is just keep working night and day and get out there,” Schwartz said.
As the interview wound down, Schwartz turned to two young people hunched over laptops at the next table.
“Excuse me, are you guys from L.A.?” he asked. “I’m running for mayor of L.A.”