As Eric Garcetti prepares to head off to India as the U.S. Ambassador to that country, Los Angeles is still almost a year and a half away from its next scheduled election. While several potential candidates are lining up for that race, the city’s economic, housing, public safety and transportation crises are not going to fix themselves over the next eighteen months. The temptation among many local political leaders will be to defer significant action on these policy fronts and simply maintain the status quo until LA voters select our next chief executive, but this path of least political resistance ignores the urgency that these challenges require.
Further complicating matters is the possibility that several members of the City Council, who are entrusted with the decision regarding who will serve as mayor until Garcetti’s term expires may be running for the job themselves. So they are unlikely to select a replacement who will seek re-election, since running against an incumbent would put those council members considering the race at a decided disadvantage. So what type of individual can be found who could capably fulfill the responsibilities of the office, help get the city on the track toward meaningful change, and then step aside by the end of next year?
So what type of individual can be found who could capably fulfill the responsibilities of the office, help get the city on the track toward meaningful change, and then step aside by the end of next year?
The answer: someone who is smart and experienced enough to understand the intricacies of local government, the complexities of public policy and the broader needs of a sprawling megalopolis. Even more importantly, that ideal leader would be less concerned with currying favor and image-burnishing than an elected official whose success depends on public support. Because this appointee will not be seeking re-election, she or he will be largely freed from the unyielding pressures of popularity, fundraising and other demands of the next campaign. Rather, LA could have a leader able to make necessarily unpopular decisions to break the gridlock that has slowed progress on so many of the city’s policy goals over the years.
Two people in particular immediately come to mind, both of whom possess the knowledge, the character and the vision to fill this breach. The first is former Deputy Mayor and former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. The other is former City Councilmember and City Controller Wendy Greuel. Both have extensive experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Both are smart, tough, and principled leaders who know how City Hall works but also understand what must be done outside its walls. Both know the city and its people. Both have the courage to make the difficult choices, to push beyond traditional boundaries, and to be willing to offend powerful constituencies to lay the groundwork for their successor to take over a city much further along the path to success.
None of this is intended as criticism of Garcetti, who has served the city commendably for two decades in elected office, including the last eight years as mayor. But by definition, politicians must be responsive to political pressures. Addressing seemingly intractable policy and community challenges often requires administering short-term pain, which is inherently difficult for elected officials who rely on those same public interests for support. A mayor who is not seeking re-election could have the leeway to use a few less carrots and a few more sticks.
Rather than appointing a temporary mayor, the City Council has the ability to call a special election to fill the office. But this option makes little practical sense, given the tremendous cost involved for an election that would take place only one year before the regularly scheduled vote. (And those Council members considering their own run for mayor would have little interest in complicating their own upward path with an officeholder who had just been elected by the people of the city.)
LA is blessed with several longtime public servants who could fill this position admirably. Longtime budget chief Miguel Santana, now the head of the Weingart Foundation, would make for another solid choice, as would former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Senator Bob Hertzberg, former Council President Herb Wesson, former Deputy Mayor Renata Simril and former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
But even among these impressive options, Greuel and Buetner would be especially strong choices. Under other circumstances, either or both might have been elected to this office. But stepping in as our city’s mayor at this critical moment would provide Los Angeles with strong leadership that it needs, and a bridge to take us forward into the city’s future.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.