During a recent candidates’ forum at Sinai Temple, Los Angeles City Councilman and mayoral hopeful Eric Garcetti began his opening statement by thanking his hosts, the audience, and the moderator, Rabbi David Wolpe.
“It was wonderful to be here for High Holidays,” Garcetti said, “and it’s great to see this room, which I’ve come to for so many dinners and events, filled with folks ... who care about politics.”
Garcetti may speak with the eloquence befitting a former Rhodes Scholar and demonstrate the manners of a naval reserve officer, but one longtime member of Sinai Temple didn’t like what she heard.
“He’s not Jewish,” said Eileen Hinkes, who said she was leaning towards the lone Republican in the race, Kevin James. “I think he [Garcetti] played the ‘Jewish card’ to try to appeal to this audience. ”
Garcetti is the son of a Jewish mother and a father whose parents were Italian- and Mexican-American, and he identifies as both Jewish and Latino. He has been to Israel on multiple occasions, and he’s a frequent attendee at IKAR, an independent congregation in Los Angeles. Still, the experience of having his identity questioned isn’t new.
“Growing up with an Italian last name, I think a lot of people thought I was neither Mexican nor Jewish,” Garcetti said in an interview a few days after the Jan. 29 debate. “This is who I am. If I left politics tomorrow, I’d still be eating what I eat, talking to my family the way I do, worshipping the way I do.”
Garcetti, 42, is one of three candidates claiming some type of Jewish identity in the race to be Los Angeles’s next mayor. The others are City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who converted to Judaism as an adult and City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is married to a Jewish man and is a member of a synagogue. In campaign appearances, all three have emphasized their commitment to L.A.’s Jews, a small but disproportionately influential segment of the citizenry that could cast as much as 20 percent of the votes in the citywide primary election on March 5.
Running against two longtime City Hall colleagues, Garcetti’s argument is that he is best able to spur economic growth in the city. In his 12 years representing the 13th district in City Council, including six as Council president, Garcetti said he “has not shied away from tough decisions in tough times.”
“You could stand by the sidelines, which might have been politically easier, or you could jump in and actually do things, like pension reform and reducing the number of people who work on the city payrolls, and bring down our costs,” Garcetti said, referring to a September 2012 plan that reduced benefits and raised the retirement age for newly hired city workers. “And I did that.”
At a time when the city is facing an estimated $222 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, Garcetti still believes things are less bad than they were before actions taken by city council improved the situation.
Garcetti takes credit for enacting some reforms to pensions for future city hires and reducing the number of employees paid by the city’s general fund, which have helped narrow the budget deficit.
For the city to close the gap, Garcetti said L.A. needs to focus on economic growth and not just cut costs or tax more. But similarly, Perry’s campaign slogan (“Tough enough to make Los Angeles work again”) hits the same theme, and Greuel has said that her number one priority is, “jobs, jobs jobs.”
To differentiate himself, Garcetti has touted his work in fostering development in Hollywood, one of 12 neighborhoods in the council district he represents. Hollywood has grown dramatically during Garcetti’s tenure in office, and though some have criticized aspects of the neighborhood’s transformation – the complaints include gentrification that pushed out some long-time residents and dramatically increased traffic -- Garcetti claims the public favors the development that has taken root there, and he has overseen approval of plans for more building in the future.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who know the Hollywood of 15 years ago who say that its not better today,” Garcetti said, referring to the dramatic decrease in gang activity in the neighborhoods, as well as more and better restaurants and entertainment venues.
Until recently, Garcetti has refrained from attacking his opponents -- perhaps because he was holding a narrow lead over Greuel according to some polls – but he dismissed Greuel’s claim to have identified $160 million in wasteful and fraudulent spending.
Garcetti presents himself as a native son, and not just of a single neighborhood, but of the city in all its diversity.
“My dad grew up in South L.A.,” Garcetti said of former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti. “My great-grandparents and grandparents grew up in Boyle Heights; my mom grew up in West L.A.; I grew up in the San Fernando Valley; now I live in the heart of the city. There’s not a part of this city I can go to without feeling a direct connection.”
In his district, Garcetti said he has tripled the number of parks for his constituents, from 16 when he took office to 48 today, and he says he’s running for mayor because he’s “dissatisfied” with the state of Los Angeles and wants to make Los Angeles great again – which is how it felt to him as a teenager in Encino in the 1980s.
“It was a place where you felt like anything was possible; nothing held you back,” he said, sitting on a bench in Historic Filipinotown, in one of the new parks he helped to create. And while L.A. in the ’80s had “big problems,” including segregated schools and a police department that wasn’t representative of the city, Garcetti said, “what we did have was real middle-class opportunities.”
To bring back some of those opportunities, Garcetti is hoping to improve the city’s infrastructure – in public appearances, he’s talked about the possibility of tunneling under the 405 Freeway to bring public transit through the Sepulveda Pass – while also improving its business climate. And if he becomes mayor (Garcetti tends to start his sentences like that with the word “when”), he said he’ll aim to emulate mayors of other great American cities, like New York’s Michael Bloomberg.
“I love his conscience and his storytelling ability, and I like Rahm’s fearlessness,” Garcetti said, referring to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Then he went on to mention Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whom he called “a very dear friend,” saying “I like the way he has connected government to people’s daily lives.”
In his essence, despite his long political career, Garcetti comes across still as a clean-cut former professor (he taught international relations at Occidental, and USC) with an impressive academic pedigree (with degrees from Columbia and Oxford). He has won over some business leaders even as he courts support from organized labor and emphasizes his environmentalist and progressive agenda. Garcetti also is running as an incumbent against the backdrop of high unemployment – barely below 10 percent in Los Angeles County. As is often required of a candidate, even as Garcetti stays on message, he does a lot of code switching, or shifting between languages, depending on his audience.
As a result, Garcetti’s multifaceted identity has tripped up some members of the communities whose heritage he shares. Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who has endorsed Greuel, told KPCC in December, “There isn’t a Latino candidate running for mayor that I know of.”
But to watch Garcetti on the trail is to see someone at ease with the boundaries he’s crossing. In October 2012, during a conversation on stage with an African-American radio host and marketer, Garcetti briefly showed off a few breakdance moves, which he said he had honed in middle school. (Garcetti didn’t mention the school’s name -- he graduated from the tony boys’ prep school that later became Harvard-Westlake.) Garcetti has been known to speak fluently in Spanish during interviews on Spanish-language TV, and Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek endorsed him with videos both in English and her native tongue.
“To be an effective mayor you have to be able to cross borders every single day,” Garcetti said. “Demographic, income, geographic, ethnic boundaries and feel comfortable and fluent everywhere.”