As He Is Sworn In, Mayor Eric Garcetti Is Still Trying To Discover Himself

Mayor Eric Garcetti takes the oath of office
Mayor Eric Garcetti takes the oath of office
Photo by Ted Soqui

As Mayor Eric Garcetti comes into office today, most Angelenos are still getting to know him. Despite nearly two years of campaigning, his public image remains indistinct. 


In part, that's because voters aren't paying close attention. But it's also because Garcetti hasn't really decided who he is and what kind of mayor he wants to be.

That became clear as Garcetti sought to introduce himself, yet again, in his inaugural speech last night.

As all politicians must, Garcetti spoke in lofty tones about his grandparents' quest for the American Dream. But when he talked about himself, he shifted to more prosaic rhetoric.

"These times demand a back-to-basics mayor -- focused above all on our economy and on jobs," Garcetti said. "And that's what I intend to be."

In a way, Garcetti is almost forced to be boring. In L.A., the pendulum swings between colorful, eccentric mayors who shoot from the hip -- Sam Yorty, Richard Riordan -- and cautious, deliberative mayors who rarely utter an unconsidered word -- Tom Bradley, James Hahn. Following the hyperkinetic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Garcetti is nearly compelled by the tides of history to tone it down.

And yet Garcetti also has an enthusiasm that rivals Villaraigosa's and that does not sit easily with his dull-as-cardboard "back-to-basics" campaign theme. That enthusiasm was present in his speech, though you had to wait a while to get to it:

"With the right focus, with the right tenacity and drive, we also can make Silicon Beach more than just a pipe dream," he said. "We can make it a pipeline to the future, with enough start-ups, computer coding in our classrooms, and teeming tech companies to give our neighbors to the north a run for their bitcoin."

The VIP seats at the Garcetti inaugural
The VIP seats at the Garcetti inaugural
One can imagine Garcetti's advisers suggesting that he leave the "bitcoin" joke out of the final text. It was obscure enough that he had to remark on it -- "I think about five people got that up there... Look it up. Google it." The fact that he used it despite its obscurity suggests an abiding personal passion for the world of tech.

This is what gets him excited. It's not filling potholes and returning phone calls. It's designing an app that can create a platform that will empower people to geotag potholes so they can be filled without anyone even making a phone call.

"We'll work to bring what is too often a rotary phone government into the smartphone era," Garcetti said. "Some of my most gratifying work on the City Council was applying new technology to the oldest, most stubborn problems."

The ideology behind that -- which Garcetti shares with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other Gen-X politicians -- is techno-populism: the belief that new technologies can flatten hierarchies and empower citizens to make progressive change. It is the ideology of Silicon Valley, described recently by George Packer in the New Yorker. The problem, as Packer writes, is what that worldview leaves out:
Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.

This is, in fact, what Garcetti often believes. For example, consider his proposal during the campaign to fund a $1 million prize to be awarded to the person who designs the best solution to L.A.'s traffic problems. The problem with that, as traffic experts were quick to point out, is that traffic is a political problem more than it is a technological one. All the painless solutions have been tried already. The ones that are left involve winners and losers; in other words, they involve politics.

Garcetti has proven himself adept enough at politics to get elected mayor. But in the audience at his inauguration were two other men who were also good enough to get elected. Gov. Gray Davis and Mayor James Hahn were seated just a row apart. Like Garcetti, both are smart guys who came into office with long careers in elected positions. (Hahn also shared with Garcetti much of his political team.) But they also made little impression on the public psyche. When adversity struck, both lost control of their public images and were forced from office.

Love him or hate him, most voters know what they think about Antonio Villaraigosa. The same cannot be said of Eric Garcetti. Even after 12 years on the City Council and 50-plus mayoral debates, voters don't have strong views about him one way or the other.

To be successful, he's going to have to decide if he's the "back-to-basics" mayor because that's what "these times demand" or the mayor of Silicon Beach because that's where his passions lie. He can't be both.

If he doesn't figure it out, he'll be James Hahn with an Android phone.

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