Saturday, June 22, was a great day. This was clear because a handmade stenciled sign on a second-story window above the newly renovated Echo Park Lake read: “Today is a great day.” And Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, looking boyish in shirtsleeves, saw it and agreed, “Today is a great day.”
Many politicians have sunny dispositions. Garcetti has made a career out of taking unbridled optimism to absurd extremes. As City Council president, he dubbed City Hall “the temple of democracy” and the exceedingly well-compensated elected officials and bureaucrats within it “the city family.”
It has been five weeks since Garcetti handily defeated controller Wendy Greuel to become the 42nd mayor of Los Angeles. We know little about the shape, structure or cast of characters that will populate the Garcetti administration, a strategy for his transition that might as well be code-named “Ghost Protocol.”
“We wanted to keep the focus on work,” Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb says, adding bitingly, “instead of getting our names in the paper.”
Translation: Garcetti is, above all, not Antonio Villaraigosa, once nicknamed by L.A. Weekly the “All About Me Mayor,” whose departure has been marked by dozens of public comments from Villaraigosa — about himself.
Villaraigosa's 2005 election, an 18-point landslide over Mayor James Hahn, attracted a frenzy of media attention. He was, after all, one of the first elected Latino mayors of a major U.S. city and the first Latino mayor of L.A. in more than a century.•
Villaraigosa made the cover of Newsweek; press conferences held by his transition team were designed to match the grandness of his ascent to power.
“The transition [team] was trying to keep up with the energy coming not just from the L.A. media corps but the national media,” says former Villaraigosa staffer Mike Trujillo. “Everything had to be big.”
Almost presidentially big. The installation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 drew more than 60 TV cameras from dozens of nations. He managed to pull it off with a transition team of 65, including Willie Brown, Carly Fiorina, Eli Broad and George P. Shultz. Villaraigosa? He had 81 transition team members, including Richard Riordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Bob Hertzberg and Maria Elena Durazo.
Villaraigosa then peppered L.A. with announcements aimed at branding him while making headlines, such as his appointment of civil-rights icon John Mack to the Board of Police Commissioners.
Trujillo recalls, “You couldn't just have good-hearted nobodies leading a commission. You had to have somebodies. Every commission appointment, every announcement was dripping with symbolism, whether we wanted it to or not.”
Villaraigosa leaves office with about half of L.A. residents giving him a vote of no confidence and the other half backing him.
This is partly why Garcetti is the no-limo, no $500 bottles of wine, Boy Scout mayor. His big announcement so far: his choice for chief of staff, Ana Guerrero, a reticent community organizer and mother of three, who was Garcetti's staff chief as a councilman. The press release notes that Guerrero enjoys “hiking, participating in book groups, and a strict spinning regimen for fitness.”
The rest of the team consists largely of Garcetti's City Council staff, who during the campaign gathered nightly for drinks at Taix, the quaint French restaurant in Echo Park with a famously long bar.
“Instead of a VIP transition committee of dozens, it's a very streamlined affair, focused more on work than symbolism,” Robb says.
Garcetti's team has implied that he will reconfigure the office of Los Angeles mayor — whose workload and goals have been a source of supposition ever since Villaraigosa hired a record 204 personal aides. The duties of Villaraigosa's 12 deputy mayors often seemed mysterious, and months after his chief of staff, Rev. Jeff Carr, stepped down, it was learned that Carr was still being paid his salary of $194,000 — to work on “special projects” such as Villaraigosa's security wall at the mayoral mansion.
That is very not Eric Garcetti.
Wonky former City Council members Jan Perry, a rare expert on the budget, and Ed Reyes, an ex–urban planner, are rumored to have shots at helming city departments, and even plucky mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez, academic whiz from the barrio–turned–high-tech exec, is mentioned as a Garcetti pick.
Garcetti's few public events focus on his “Back to Basics” listening tour, so dull that, while locals in San Pedro and Boyle Heights apparently loved it, few journalists could bring themselves to attend.
And that doesn't bother Garcetti or his staffers one bit.
The transition team seems obsessed with trying to show an uninterested L.A. — only 21 percent of residents voted in the May 21 mayoral election — that City Hall is not a vapid PR machine.
Villaraigosa, of course, had an insatiable appetite for media attention. Connie Bruck's seminal New Yorker profile of Villaraigosa included a scene where he complained at a press conference that there were “only” five TV cameras.
Villaraigosa's lame-duck operation has generated a roughly equal number of news stories to the mayor-elect's. There was Villaraigosa at the unveiling of a 2/3-acre park. There he was at the reopening of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, whose new central hall is named after Villaraigosa. His many “exit interviews” announce that he's moving to Venice and, yes, he still plans to run for governor.
“Villaraigosa, he really was concerned with being in the paper every day,” says one of his former top aides. “I don't think Eric is concerned about that.”
Garcetti is vacationing in Belize before his July 1 legal swearing-in. Villaraigosa's inauguration was preceded by a $500-a-head black-tie gala at the Music Center hosted by Jimmy Smits and featuring performances by Natalie Cole and Tito Puente. The event raised millions for the afterschool program L.A.'s Best but set a glitzy tone that some say finally engulfed Villaraigosa.
The inauguration was an all-day affair: an interfaith mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels followed by a 50,000-person march up Temple Street, the official swearing-in and a 42-minute speech.
Garcetti, no slouch in the celebrity-friends department, is forgoing the black tie and following his strictly ceremonial June 30 inauguration at 6 p.m. at City Hall with a free, public party in Grand Park to be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, with music by Moby. There will be food trucks.
“Antonio Villaraigosa understood the importance of being larger-than-life,” says Dan Schnur, a USC political science professor. “Eric Garcetti understands the importance of being life-sized.”
Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and a blogger at RonKayeLA.com, was an admirer of Villaraigosa's — until six weeks into his tenure, when Villaraigosa signed raises for DWP workers who already earned far above the industry average. Kaye says Garcetti's under-the-radar transition is “the deliberate effort of someone to lower expectations.”
Others see Garcetti using the playbook of Gov. Jerry Brown, who followed larger-than-life Schwarzenegger into office.
Brown served hot dogs at his inauguration party, flew coach, sparsely decorated his office and tapped his wife as his top adviser.
Brown has since enjoyed a streak of political victories, including a temporary sales-tax hike backed by voters and a recently passed budget that relies on conservative revenue estimates. (One glaring exception was Brown's effort to cut $20 million in state funds that cities, police departments and others use to provide the public with government documents under the California Public Records Act. People cried bloody murder and Brown backed down.)
“Jerry Brown's low-key manner is seen as refreshing to reporters and pundits after Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Trujillo says. Yet Brown sells his ideas by scaring the bejesus out of voters, threatening to cut public education if they didn't approve his tax hike and warning lawmakers that the jump in revenue thanks to the improved economy could vanish in an instant.
Brown has been the cranky old tightwad California needed, standing up to Democratic legislators who'd rather be out shopping. So far, voters love it.
Garcetti is hard-working, deep into policy where Villaraigosa eschewed the fine print, and an excellent listener.
He connected with voters. Now we'll see if he can hold the line at City Hall. In other words, we'll see if Mr. Nice Guy has a mean streak.
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*This paragraph has been corrected to reflect the fact that other major American cities had Latino mayors before Los Angeles.