In electing Eric Garcetti their mayor on Tuesday, voters here chose a candidate who personifies the multiracial, multicultural city of L.A.’s hipster youth. At 42, Garcetti will be the youngest mayor this city has had in more than 100 years. Ethnically, Garcetti is not only the first elected Jewish mayor of Los Angeles but also the city’s second Latino mayor in more than 100 years (he’ll succeed the termed-out Antonio Villaraigosa). His Italian forebears settled in Mexico; his mother’s family is Jewish. Not since New York was governed by Fiorello La Guardia — an Italian Episcopalian who had a Jewish mother — has a mayor been a better demographic fit for so polyglot a city.
Garcetti fits today’s L.A. in part because, unlike La Guardia, he wears his ethnic identities so lightly: He’s the perfect elected leader for the “race doesn’t matter” young Obama backers who like their pols as slim, smart (Garcetti was a Rhodes Scholar), cool and post-ethnic as Barack Obama himself. Actually, in several particulars, cooler: Garcetti plays a mean jazz piano in a Keith Jarrett-esque mode; he resides in hipper-than-thou Silver Lake; and his main achievement in his 12 years representing Hollywood on the city council has been to help revitalize his long-bedraggled, if world-famous, district, making it safe again for middle-class revelers while requiring developers to build affordable housing and employers to pay living wages.
A liberal Democrat in a liberal Democratic town, Garcetti is likely to be among the greenest of mayors. Los Angeles, he says, has entered “the golden age of mass-transit construction.” In 2008, gridlocked Angelenos voted to raise their sales tax for the next 30 years to fund a far-reaching web of rail-transit lines, a project that Villaraigosa — grasping its potential to reduce traffic and pollution and to create jobs — accelerated and that Garcetti vows to accelerate even more. “This isn’t central planners pushing mass transit onto a city of drivers,” he says. “There’s huge demand out there for more buses, trains and bike lanes.”
The biggest demand in Los Angeles, however, is for good jobs. This city has never really recovered economically from the decimation of its aerospace industry — once the largest private-sector employer in the region — at the end of the Cold War. As middle-income employment waned, the low-wage service-sector boomed, stranding hundreds of thousands of immigrants and other workers in jobs on construction sites, in restaurant kitchens or in overheated warehouses that offered meager pay and no security.
Garcetti insists that Los Angeles can again incubate the kind of vibrant, high-wage industries that once made it the marvel of post-World War II America. “There’s too much fatalism about the end of manufacturing and aerospace in L.A.,” he says. “Los Angeles is the third-biggest locale for high-tech start-ups, after Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv.” The challenge is turning out enough qualified workers for those firms to decide to stay in L.A. once they expand — to which end he has a range of proposals for boosting both the quality and quantity of science, math and vocational educational programs.
But the shortcomings of the city’s economy go well beyond any skills gaps in its residents’ résumés. With the city poised to purchase many hundreds of rail cars and buses for its expanding transit system, it must find ways to use that purchasing power to entice manufacturers to make those trains and buses in Los Angeles. And with so many Angelenos laboring in dead-end, low-wage jobs, the city should require a decent minimum wage — say, $15 an hour, which comes to $30,000 a year for a full-time worker — for employees of large enterprises in sectors that can’t relocate and aren’t subject to global competition (for instance, big hotels). That kind of pay raise would supply the stimulus that the L.A. economy badly needs.
These are causes that local labor and community activists plan to ask Garcetti to embrace in his first year as mayor. Garcetti will surely make a name for himself as an environmental leader and social progressive — joining such other relatively young California Democrats as state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (and outgoing mayor Villaraigosa) as most likely to succeed the state’s septuagenarian Democratic leaders: Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. But as mayor of Los Angeles, Garcetti will be the best positioned of this younger cohort to build a more vibrant economy. The world will soon know just how cool he is. If he can add to that a record of helping create good, remunerative jobs, there’s no telling how far he’ll go.