December 16, 2018

Listening to Mayor Garcetti — from the side

Public officials come to meetings armed with talking points. And who can blame them? They’re asked the same questions over and over. Their words are carefully dissected. One wrong phrase can destroy a career. It’s hard to improvise smart, knowledgeable answers. That’s why politicians must always be on top of their messaging: what they have accomplished, what they promised, what they plan to do in the future, and so on.

This is the world of public service, and it’s especially true for a high-profile position such as the mayor of a big city like Los Angeles.

So, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visited the Jewish Journal offices last week for an interview with our reporting staff, I fully expected to hear some well-crafted talking points, and he didn’t disappoint. On every subject, from crime and homelessness to housing and transportation, the mayor seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say.

There were a few moments, however, where he veered off course with a brief, offhand remark. I pay special attention to those moments because I can often tell a lot about a person by what they choose to emphasize.

The funny thing is, when I heard these offhand remarks, my reaction was: Why is he not making a bigger deal of these things? They make him look human and real. They make him stand out from other politicians.

The first remark came in the middle of a long response on the problem of homelessness. The mayor dissected the problem, gave us a candid take on the scope of the challenge and outlined the steps his administration had taken as well as his future initiatives. So far, so good. All good talking points.

Then, as he spoke of the need for “an army of social workers” to help fight homelessness, he made an offhand remark that he “goes out with these outreach teams all the time” and that “I know people by their first names on the street now.” That personal aside lasted a few seconds before he went back to discussing statistics, programs, and so on.

I thought to myself: Wow, a mayor who goes out on the street to talk to the homeless. That’s big. That’s the kind of politician I would vote for. Why didn’t he play it up more?

His next offhand remark was also very brief. He was talking about the problem of crime, and was making the connection between crime, mental health and the ubiquitous use of drugs. He quoted a psychiatrist at a local hospital that he had met recently. How did he meet her? Here’s what he said:

“I talked to a woman. I do office hours where people come in and talk to me, just kind of random people who can sign up. And the one who, one of the people who got through this last week to talk to me was a psychiatrist.” He then went right back to his main subject.

Again, I thought: Wow. A mayor who allows anyone to sign up and make an appointment with him. That’s what President Lincoln did! Why doesn’t Garcetti make a bigger deal of this stuff, especially in front of journalists?

The only explanation I could come up with is that this man is not a show off. A policy wonk, maybe, but not a show off. Putting any cynicism aside, maybe he does these “extra” human things not to look good but because he really wants to do them.

There was one more offhand remark that caught my attention. It happened while the mayor was talking about his administration’s efforts to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2024.

Out of the blue, he looked out at the late afternoon view from our conference room, and said, “Don’t miss the sunlight on the Hollywood sign right now.”

He could have given me twenty well-crafted talking points about his love for Los Angeles, and it wouldn’t be worth the spontaneity of interrupting himself in front of journalists to admire a view of his beloved city.

His appreciation for that golden view may have something to do with the fact that he’s an avid photographer. That’s another human trait he downplayed – in fact, he never brought it up.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at