July 20, 2019

Garcetti Has Work to Do for a Presidential Run

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Courtesy of the L.A. Mayor's Office

It appears Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has gotten the idea of running for president out of his system — at least for the time being. Now he can get on to the much more serious business of becoming secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Garcetti admitted the inevitable on Jan. 29, when he announced that he would not seek the Oval Office in 2020. The election of the last two presidents should teach us not to mistake the politically improbable for the impossible, but most observers believed that the best outcome for a credible but unsuccessful Garcetti presidential campaign would have been a Cabinet appointment under the next Democratic president. That objective should still be plausible for him, and is more likely to be attained by a successful mayor than an unsuccessful presidential hopeful.

Garcetti had spent most of the last two years fanning the flames of speculation about his potential candidacy. But events beyond his control ultimately forced him to put his White House dreams on hold — just not the ones you’re probably thinking of. 

None of the high-profile challenges Garcetti has faced recently — the teachers strike, the ongoing homelessness crisis and an FBI investigation of City Hall corruption — would have been particularly harmful to his candidacy.

The recently settled teachers strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District would not have been a significant obstacle. If anything, the labor-friendly settlement, and his role in mediating the outcome, could have favorably contrasted Garcetti with the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.

The homeless crisis would have been a more complicated challenge, and he would have been forced to explain to Iowa and New Hampshire voters the videos of Skid Row posted by his opponents. But homelessness is not a problem unique to Los Angeles, and Garcetti could have framed it as a federal-government failure to provide adequate support to cities.

The FBI investigation into potential local-government corruption does not appear to be focused on Garcetti. Unless information becomes public that implicates him directly, it’s difficult to see the probe causing him significant political problems. 

The biggest obstacle to Garcetti’s presidential hopes was the prospect of being overshadowed by a too-crowded Democratic primary field with potential opponents better positioned to attract the public and media attention needed to claim the party’s nomination.

“Garcetti has plenty of time to develop a national following. Eight years from now, he will be about the same age as George W. Bush when the Texas governor began his White House campaign. “

The excitement surrounding the candidacy of California’s U.S. Senator Kamala Harris allowed her to parlay her recent campaign announcement into a solid week of rallies, interviews and town hall meetings. In Texas, defeated U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke has leveraged an innovative social media presence into a draft presidential movement, and he now occupies the generational space in the Democratic firmament that could have belonged to Garcetti. 

Garcetti is smart, articulate and personable, but he has a less-than-electrifying presence. Even while he traveled the country to raise money for Democratic candidates and state parties last fall, Harris was lambasting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on national television and O’Rourke was trolling Ted Cruz on Instagram. The enthusiasm shown for politicians like Harris and O’Rourke has not been generated by our low-key mayor. 

Garcetti has plenty of time to develop a national following. Eight years from now, he will be about the same age as George W. Bush when the Texas governor began his White House campaign. And seven presidential elections from now, in the year 2048, Garcetti will still be younger than Bernie Sanders is today.

This week, Garcetti testified before Congress on housing and transportation issues. That’s not as exciting as being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey or Rachel Maddow. 

But using opportunities like these to become a national spokesman for America’s cities can be the first step toward a presidential campaign in the future — with better prospects than he would have faced now.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaustpre