Share power, but don’t give in to low expectations
In big U.S. cities such as New York or Chicago, the title of mayor suggests a political titan who dominates the municipal landscapes. The reality in Los Angeles is that an L.A. mayor, even after the charter reforms of 1999, shares power with 15 city council members whose goals tend to be much more parochial. Still, to a large degree, the mayor of Los Angeles gets to write his own job description and can dominate local and regional politics by using the real weapons at his disposal: a big staff, an army of appointed commissioners, and perhaps most importantly, a bully pulpit which can command media attention and define the public agenda more than any other California elected official below the governor.
In the case of Mayor Eric Garcetti, he has been careful to lower the voters’ expectations and define himself as “the Un-Villaraigosa.” Instead of promising to plant 1 million trees or to mold the L.A. Unified School District to his education reform agenda like the previous mayor, Garcetti has embraced “back to basics” as his motto. This may fit a city whose current political culture is increasingly distracted and disengaged, as evidenced by the abysmal 23.3 percent voter turnout in the June 2013 mayoral run-off election.
Garcetti has scored some big victories for Los Angeles during his first year, most notably his adroit use of connections in the Obama administration to get federal funding for the Los Angeles River, economic development, and expanding the transit system. But if fewer than one out of four eligible voters thinks that an election matters, it does not speak well for our system of choosing leaders. In his next three years, Garcetti’s biggest challenge might be proving that he can lead a city of rising, not declining, expectations.
A big fracking deal
Here is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s most important challenge: ban fracking and other extreme oil extraction techniques like acidization.
There has been drilling in Los Angeles since the late 1800s. Today, much of the “easy” oil is gone, and the remaining reserves are harder to reach. We’re left with more intensive drilling techniques—ones that require more chemicals, more machines, and, ironically, more energy. When an industry injects millions of gallons of acid and chemical-laced water into the ground near homes, schools, and businesses, you have to ask: Is this good for my neighborhood? Are the benefits worth the risks? When fracking has been linked to earthquakes in places that historically don’t have them, likeOklahoma, does it make sense to frack in earthquake-prone L.A.? When we’re living through an epic drought, can we afford to use and pollute our precious water for oil? Both L.A. and Culver City are currently studying a moratorium on fracking, which I support.
Garcetti’s most important accomplishment is fostering and funding alternative transportation.
L.A.’s infamous car culture is literally choking the city. Cars are killing us with air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and obesity due to lack of physical activity, not to mention traffic accidents. Cars are loud, smelly, and they take up far too much public space. If you’ve experienced the liberating feeling of CicLAvia, you’ve seen how valuable car-free streets can be. Mayor Garcetti’s focus ongreen streets, public transit, bicycle infrastructure, and walkable neighborhoods is injecting a healthy dose of livability into LA. In partnering with Metro to leverage federal funding for our light rail and subway system, he’s creating local jobs and relieving the city of the gridlock that’s been its legacy for far too long.
Curbing oil drilling and championing alternative transportation go hand in hand. Together, they will reduce carbon, creating a city that is more beautiful, more livable, healthier, and more resilient.
If you want an A, make L.A. an economic powerhouse
I have had a dental practice in Sherman Oaks since 1979. During that time, I have paid the city of Los Angeles enough business gross receipts taxes to pay for two years of college for my twins. During this same time, a friend of mine paid about $50 per year to the city of Burbank for his business license there.
So when Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke of correcting this inequity by proposing a phased reformation of the gross receipts tax in the city of Los Angeles, I, like many other Valley businessmen, was excited and optimistic. But the mayor put off this historic and potentially game-changing act for another year, tempering our happiness with city hall.
Garcetti is also an astute political realist. I sense that, after 12 years on the city council, and the development of a pretty good pulse on the mood of the 15 council members, he wasn’t ready to press his bet against the power that lies in that room, at least for his first year in office.
I sincerely believe that had the mayor had stuck to his guns on reforming the most emblematic business-unfriendly ordinance of a historically business-unfriendly city, he would have made a strong statement that he will not be swayed from making Los Angeles the economic powerhouse it could and should be—a city that welcomes Fortune 500 companies instead of losing them.
Let me say that I believe that Mayor Garcetti has a strong vision to move Los Angeles into a better future. And I think that Garcetti is the right guy to make things better for Angelenos. He certainly has been much more approachable and more connected to his constituents than other recent mayors here.
But, if we were to consider Mayor Garcetti’s first term as a college course, I would say he has shown some good work to date, but his grade is still an incomplete.
Channeling world-class ambitions into a world-class city
I think one of the most important things Mayor Eric Garcetti has done so far is to announce to the world our ambitions as a city. He is spot-on with the international conversation about the growing importance and innovations of cities, the so-called “metropolitan revolution” (as described by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley).
He viscerally understands what needs to be done as much as—if not more than—any other metropolitan leader. (For one example, see the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics conversation with mayors Garcetti, Bill de Blasio, Kasim Reed, and Rahm Emanuel.)
And I think having an articulate, clear-eyed vision of what our future could be if we want to be a world-class city—something about which L.A. has shown past ambivalence—will enable us finally to build the kind of civic infrastructure we need to get there.
There’s a chance for a paradigm shift here; throughout L.A.’s history and convention, we have shown an uncanny ability to resist even a dollop of the necessary communitarianism. The mayor’s task is to not only move all the component parts of this city, but the ken of the whole as well.
He has voiced this understanding when he has publicly acknowledged that our lack of civic fabric is one of our biggest potential obstacles to success.
From the Great Streets program to revitalizing the L.A. River, from federally funded Promise Zones to opening the Getty House mayor’s residence for community events, the mayor is poised to take this on. But I also hope we recognize our collective responsibility to pitch in.
A little scrappiness would go a long way
Comparisons between New York and Los Angeles are at once unfair and inevitable. The New York mayor’s office has more muscular powers and a fatter budget. Meanwhile, L.A.’s mayor has to share the stage with both a city council and an opaque county government.
Still, Angelenos can only look wistfully at the way in which Bill de Blasio, in just six months in office, has risen to face some of his city’s toughest challenges, from investing billions to create affordable housing on a grand scale to rolling back the excesses of an overzealous police department.
After a year in office, we in Los Angeles are still struggling to understand what Eric Garcetti’s mayoralty is all about. There’s nothing wrong with the initiatives he’s taken so far—a plan to develop L.A.’s long-neglected river, a Great Streets campaign. But all of this seems to be a tactic that studiously avoids the city’s biggest problems. Employment in Los Angeles has been stagnant for more than a decade, exacerbating a gap between the haves and have-nots. And the city’s own lumbering bureaucracy—a medieval permitting process, no clear central policy for economic development—is Exhibit A in how to chase away business. Witness the silence from city hall when companies such as Toyota decide to decamp from the L.A. basin, or when reports, even flawed ones like the Los Angeles 2020 Commission’s, call for bold action to reverse the city’s decline.
Political power doesn’t accumulate while in office; it wanes. A mayor must seize the moment as soon as the mic at the swearing-in ceremony is switched off. But this mayor is risk-averse to a fault. If a year has passed and we’re still scratching our heads trying to figure out what the theme of this term is all about, the battle is already lost.
I love my adopted home of L.A. But is it wrong to yearn for a mayor who might have a little bit more of a Brooklyn street fighter in him?
Originally posted at Zocalo Public Square.