Eric Garcetti Takes Over As L.A.'s New Mayor

Jul 1, 2013
Originally published on July 11, 2013 7:50 am

Los Angeles’ recovery goes slowly. The unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and residents remain frustrated by traffic jams, substandard schools, costly housing and the backlog of unrepaired streets, according to a new USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll.

According to the same poll, a majority of Los Angeles residents are optimistic about the city’s future under the leadership of the newly-elected mayor, who starts his first day on the job Monday.

Eric Garcetti, 42, was the councilman from Silver Lake, and is the youngest mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century.

Interview Highlights: Eric Garcetti

Is Los Angeles a divided city?

“We are a city of contrasts. We do have immense wealth and we have big pockets of poverty.”

“I’ve always found that what you have to do is find common projects to work on together: building a park, getting a gang out of a neighborhood, helping small businesses owners get up and running. Then you learn about each others’ cultures as a by-product. But I think we are past the ‘Can’t we all just get along together,’ phase that Rodney King called for 20 years ago. We’re onto working for common projects.”

“More and more, I think this is an incredibly mixed and integrated city. We need each other. We’re realizing that. And I think we want to not just be a big city, but we want to be a great city once again.”

Los Angeles’ economic future

“For me, it’s really important that we focus on making L.A. a business friendly place again, focusing on those key industries. And a lot of people don’t realize how strong our economy really is. Our port is the number one port in America … the number one tourist destination. It’s still the manufacturing capital of America, which a lot of people don’t realize.”

“We’re in a competitive environment, and Los Angeles won’t sell itself, despite Hollywood, despite our weather, despite the beaches and the ocean. I want people to know that they can count on a city government that wants them to be here, that will be responsive to them.”

Guest:

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, the nation's second-largest city has a new leader today. Forty-two-year-old Eric Garcetti was sworn in last night as mayor of Los Angeles. Thirteen-year-old Kenia Castillo did the honors. She's the daughter of a janitor whom Garcetti met at a rally when she was just four years old.

KENIA CASTILLO: I, Eric Garcetti...

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: I, Eric Garcetti...

CASTILLO: Do solemnly swear....

GARCETTI: Do solemnly swear....

CASTILLO: That I will support the Constitution of the United States...

GARCETTI: That I will support the Constitution of the United States...

CASTILLO: And the Constitution of the State of California...

GARCETTI: And the Constitution of the State of California.

HOBSON: Garcetti is the first Jewish mayor of L.A. He's also got Mexican and Italian roots, and he's following the widely popular Antonio Villaraigosa. While the city's economy is on the upswing, the recovery has been slow, with unemployment still above 10 percent. A new L.A. Times poll shows Angelinos are most concerned with traffic jams, potholes, struggling schools and the high cost of housing. So a full plate for the new mayor of L.A., Eric Garcetti, who joins us now from City Hall in Los Angeles. And Mr. Mayor, welcome to HERE & NOW.

GARCETTI: Thank you so much, Jeremy. Great to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, great to have you, and I guess what is your first order of business? I mean day one?

GARCETTI: Well, besides tuning in to your new show...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCETTI: It's to make sure that we get the city of L.A. focused on the basics. You know, I think cities are the most innovative places on the face of the Earth. It's where people are reinventing how we move, our economy, how we deal with our environment. I think a lot of people see national levels of government, sometimes state government, not working.

And so for me it's taking the power that I have of the second-largest city in America and getting us back to work, rebuilding our economy and trying to create a modern city hall that uses old-fashioned customer service combined with, you know, new-fangled technology to make sure that sometimes government is right there at your front door or in your palm even.

HOBSON: What kind of flexibility are you going to have to do because you are walking into a situation where the city is projected to spend more than it takes in, in the coming years?

GARCETTI: Well, you know, we got through about three or four of the toughest years we've ever faced, at least in my lifetime. I served on the City Council, was City Council president during that time. And we enacted one of the largest packages of pension reform, looking at health care costs and freezing salaries to get us through that time.

We downsized the workforce, and that helped us, you know, balance the budget for this coming year, which starts today, as well. But for me, you know, the larger and longer-term goal is to make sure that as we get more money coming back in during this recovery is it doesn't just go into rising health care costs for our workers, pension costs, salaries, but that we restore city services that have been cut by the last four or five years.

So, you know, for me I got elected with a pretty independent mandate. I didn't have the support of the Chamber of Commerce, I didn't have the support of the County Federation of Labor.

HOBSON: Right.

GARCETTI: But I've worked really well with business and with unions. So I think they look at me as a fair person, as a straight-shooter. I'll sit down and say look, these numbers don't lie. If we don't do anything in the next three or four years, we'll see this balanced budget bubble up again to record deficits, and we just can't afford to do that.

HOBSON: Well, how difficult, though, is it going to be to get things done if, you know, labor unions aren't with you, as they would be with somebody who didn't try to cut their wages and benefits?

GARCETTI: I think the rank and file have been with me. I look forward to working with the union leadership, as well. But I think facts don't lie. And, you know, that's always been the strength of being a good negotiator. I've always been very respectful. I'm a union member myself, come from, you know, a union household.

But if I can give them straight numbers that say, you know, in two or three years, here's the projection, we're all going to go off a fiscal cliff again. Just because we backed away from that cliff in recent years doesn't mean we can't see it. And so my experience has been very good. You know, they're fair, they sacrifice, but they have to be, you know, sometimes led to those numbers, and you have to have the trust in the mayor.

HOBSON: One of the things about Los Angeles, and I lived there for a while, is that it's a very divided city. There are pockets of extreme wealth and celebrity even, and there are places that are really down and out, and there's not a lot of crossover. How do you deal with that problem?

GARCETTI: Sure, we are a city of contrasts. We do have immense wealth, and we have big pockets of poverty. But, you know, the district I represented in the heart of Los Angeles for the last 12 years had, you know, journalists, business people right next door to folks who worked in their businesses; people that they covered, artists, people in one apartment complex who speak five or six languages.

So I think L.A. is the most integrated and diverse city not only in America but on the face of the Earth, over 200 languages spoken. So I think we're making it work. I've always found that what you have to do is find common projects to work on together: building a park, getting a gang out of a neighborhood, helping small businesses owners get up and running.

Then you learn about each others' cultures as a by-product. But I think we are past the can't-we-all-just-get-along phase in Los Angeles that, you know, Rodney King called for 20 years ago. We're onto working for common projects, and that's my philosophy, too.

HOBSON: But it still doesn't feel the way that New York feels, where everybody is kind of living in the same space. It's still I think more of a quilt than a melting pot.

GARCETTI: It can be, but if you go to a, you know, a mini-mall in Los Angeles, you'll see, you know, folks who make six-figure salaries next to people who are earning a little bit over a living wage, eating in the same great Thai restaurant. There are certainly pockets, you know, in Bel Air, or pockets of poverty that we have in other places where it's less mixed.

But, you know, the difference between New York and L.A. I think is public transit. If you just imagine on the freeway that those are individual people instead of cars, you basically - you know, sometimes I do that in traffic, and I actually see a lot of people I know, in the same way that you would on a street in New York or on the subway.

So more and more, I think this is an incredibly mixed and integrated city. We need each other. We're realizing that. And I think we want to not just be a big city, but we want to be a great city once again.

HOBSON: Well, funny you should mention public transit because I was going to ask you. I mean, what needs to happen there? Antonio Villaraigosa, your predecessor, came in eight years ago and promised - he was talking about a subway to the sea, which still hasn't happened yet. How much farther do you need to go when it comes to public transit in L.A.?

GARCETTI: Well, I think this is really a second golden age for public transit in Los Angeles. You know, we had the old Red Car back in the day, in the '20s, '30s, '40s, that was the envy of the country. We let that unfortunately fall away. But now we have passed taxes on ourselves in the last few years to build another five lines here in the city of Los Angeles.

You will get a rail line to the sea in less than two years. It'll go from downtown to the Pacific Ocean. It won't be the underground one, although that one will continue forward. The New York Post wrote a piece about it just last year saying watch out, New York, here comes L.A.

And increasingly you have young people who - you know, when I grew up, it was a rite of passage. As soon as you turn 16, get me in a car. I know a lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds in L.A. who only own bikes, take public transit and don't really frankly want to have a car of their own. To me, that's showing a huge cultural change in L.A. People want to have those options of not just getting in a car and feeling free but being stuck.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPLESS IN SILVERLAKE")

HOBSON: We're speaking with Eric Garcetti, the new mayor of Los Angeles. The song we're listening to is "Sleepless in Silverlake" by Les Savy Fav. Silverlake is part of Mayor Garcetti's home district and one of the up-and-coming areas of L.A. When we come back, we'll ask the mayor if it's possible to spread that kind of development to other parts of the city. We will also talk about immigration reform. We're back in a minute, HERE & NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPLESS IN SILVERLAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPLESS IN SILVERLAKE")

HOBSON: It's Here & Now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE L.A.")

HOBSON: If you call City Hall in Los Angeles, you're likely to hear this Randy Newman classic while waiting on hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE L.A.")

HOBSON: There is a lot to love in L.A. but a lot of work to be done, as well. Pensions for city workers now account for 20 percent of the budget. The city's lost its manufacturing base, to a large degree, and there is the persistent gridlock and smog that are so famous in Los Angeles.

We're talking about all that today with Eric Garcetti, the new mayor of Los Angeles. Today is his first day on the job. And Mayor Garcetti, as city counselor, you represented what's called the Tri-Hipster area of L.A., Hollywood, Silverlake and Echo Park, which has seen a lot of development with these trendy restaurants and shops and a lot more compacted areas than other parts of L.A., where people can walk around and maybe even get around by public transit.

Is there a way, do you think, to spread that kind of thing citywide, that kind of development?

GARCETTI: Absolutely. We had Silverlake, which was called by Forbes magazine the hippest neighborhood in America, just edging out Williamsburg, which, you know, when Forbes magazine calls you the hippest neighborhood in America, it's probably the beginning of the end, so you better enjoy it.

HOBSON: Yeah really, they're really hip at Forbes.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCETTI: But it was an unthinkable title 10 years ago, and we did it by focusing not on any big, top-down stuff but really bottom-up health of the street, closing down a street to cars, bringing a farmers' market, making the sidewalks look more beautiful, encouraging independent businesses. And that's a formula that'll work throughout Los Angeles.

It's part of my plan to have a great streets program, to do this on Main Streets in 20 different neighborhoods in L.A. so that we can take some of that magic that we had in the, as you called it, Tri-Hipster area and bring it to all of L.A. because L.A. is this incredible collection of villages just waiting for each of the potential of those villages to be unleashed, and I think a successful mayor knows that each is different, but there's some common threads that link them all.

HOBSON: But where is the money going to come from to do stuff like that? I mean, you've got a city full of residents who, even just this year rejected a sales tax increase. They don't want to be paying more.

GARCETTI: Well, you know, the way I did it as a council member even in a recession was to focus money that we already had that was being, you know, wasted on other things and focusing it on those things that can be catalytic. You know, a farmers' market isn't very expensive, but you get a lot of bang for the buck, putting in a pocket park.

I tripled the number of parks in my district from 16 to 48, the most parks ever built in the city's history in a 12-year span. And those parks become the anchors. You know, once a park opens, people want to get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine afterwards. That makes it easier for a restaurant to open up.

So I look at those things where we're already spending money, and if you can do them with better urban planning, focus not just on a car culture here, but a village, kind of neighborhood feel. That's something that pays for itself.

HOBSON: In terms of the economy in L.A., the L.A. Times notes that over the past 20 years, personal income in L.A. has grown at half the national rate, and the city has lost a lot of its major business sectors, including many in manufacturing: aerospace, auto production. What do you see as L.A.'s economic future?

GARCETTI: Well, you know, we've got the greatest ingredients for success in the world, but I think for a long time we just figured the sun would sell this place, and people would come. So our taxes have gotten too high. We have, you know, a business tax that taxes you on your gross receipts, not on your profits, that I want to get rid of.

We forgot to market our city, whether it's in other parts of the country. You know, one aerospace executive told me it's easier to get a meeting with Governor Perry of Texas in Los Angeles, than it was for a local official to pay attention to him.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: He's trying to get all your businesses.

GARCETTI: Oh, I'm coming to Texas and trying to get some of his businesses. But we're going to change that formula. For me, it's really important that we focus on making L.A. a business friendly place again, focusing on those key industries.

And a lot of people don't realize how strong our economy really is. Our port is the number one port in America. I can tell you any stretch of America, a district in Massachusetts to Florida to Washington state, how many jobs are dependent on America's port here in L.A. Number one tourist destination. It's still the manufacturing capital of America, which a lot of people don't realize.

But I want to bring a focus as mayor to reinventing each one of those industries. You know, aerospace is changing. It might be SpaceX instead of fighter jets, putting people in space instead of, you know, winning a war. Looking at manufacturing, it might be 3-D, high-tech manufacturing, not just the old kind of low-tech stuff.

So I think with that sort of focus, you can make this a great urban economic center once again.

HOBSON: Is it hard to travel to places like Texas as mayor? I mean, don't you have to spend all of your time in the city?

GARCETTI: Well, I think it's going to be important for me to take my message around the United States and abroad. There's always that tension where people say hey, stay home, but in a city like Los Angeles, where it literally is the entire world packed into one place, when I can go to China and get a billion-dollar investment or Korea, Mexico City; when I can go to a Texas and tell people hey, we're competing with you on the taxes, we're trying to get them lower, but isn't it rather hot here today in Houston come to L.A.; those are the sorts of things I'm going to do because we're in a competitive environment, and Los Angeles won't sell itself, despite Hollywood, despite our weather, despite the beaches and the ocean. I want people to know that they can count on a city government that wants them to be here, that will be responsive to them and that will be right there in their backyard encouraging them to come to L.A.

HOBSON: I want to ask you about one big issue that's going on in Washington right now, and that would be immigration reform. You are going to be the mayor of a city that has, according to a USC study, 10 percent of its population is undocumented. What's at stake in Los Angeles in this immigration battle?

GARCETTI: Well, we have everything to gain from immigration reform in Los Angeles. And this is a personal issue for me. My grandfather was an immigrant from Mexico. He came here when he was one year old, didn't receive his citizenship for 30 years, until he volunteered to fight in World War II. And that set him and his family down a pathway that allows me to be the mayor of this town today.

And, you know, more people paying taxes, more people being able to testify to crimes(ph), more people being able to pay into Social Security, more people being able to get college scholarships can only benefit this city. And this city has been made great by immigrants. Ten million immigrants aren't going to be deported tomorrow or anytime soon, so what can do to best incorporate them in as Americans, you know, make them go through some hoops of course, but I'm going to be a strong proponent of making sure there is that pathway to citizenship.

And more than that, I'm setting up an office of immigrant affairs in the city again so that we can get to the front of that line. Angelinos can be ready, get the legal help, fill out all the paperwork and make sure that they're prepared to become full-blooded Americans, you know, the moment that that legislation passes.

HOBSON: Do you think it will pass? Because it looks like it's going to be an uphill climb in the House.

GARCETTI: I don't know today. I mean, I'm hopeful; I'm optimistic. I think all reasonable minds see the political importance for the Republican Party in the House to pass this, and certainly colleagues in the Senate felt that way. But, you know, I talked to the president when he was out here just a couple weeks ago, and even he wasn't sure.

Our business colleagues from the chambers, from agriculture and others can say look, if we don't legalize people here, those jobs, those manufacturing jobs are just going to another country. At least we've got a shot of keeping those jobs here if we can legalize them, and I hope the Republicans in the House will realize that.

HOBSON: Final question, Mr. Mayor. Are you ever going to get a football team in Los Angeles?

(LAUGHTER)

GARCETTI: Well, we have USC, and we're proud of the Trojans, but a professional football team would be certainly a good thing to have. We might even down the road get two. We put together a pretty good stadium proposal in Los Angeles. It's all in the hands of a few billionaire owners and who wants to come L.A. But we will certainly lay out the red carpet.

We've said no taxpayer subsidy for a stadium because that's not good public policy, but we're a great football town, would love to have a football team, and I'll be in conversations regularly with the NFL as mayor to see if we can finally make that dream come true.

HOBSON: Eric Garcetti, the new mayor of the great city of Los Angeles, thanks for joining us, and good luck.

GARCETTI: Thank you so much. Good luck to you, too.

HOBSON: Well, what do you make of the new mayor's plans for Los Angeles? Maybe your community is facing similar challenges. Let us know what you think at hereandnow.org. You can also send us a tweet. I am @jeremyhobson. The show is @hereandnow. And Robin, you are @hereandnowrobin.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

That would be me. Still ahead today, NPR's Nina Totenberg. Did you catch Justice Scalia rolling his eyes at Justice Ginsburg last week? What is going on in the Supreme Court? As the session ends, Nina will open her reporter notebook for us. But the latest news is next, HERE & NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.