correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the city that Andrew Johnson served as mayor. It was Greeneville, Tenn. This version has been updated.
It was dicey being Jewish in a Russia that was tolerant of pogroms, and then came the threat of conscription into the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, so one of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s great-grandfathers headed west to America. Another Garcetti great-grandfather married a Mexican woman who, fleeing revolutionary ferment there, headed north to America. Which is why Garcetti, a fourth-generation resident of one of the world’s most polyglot cities, is as American as a kosher burrito, a delicacy available at Mexikosher on Pico Boulevard.
Trim, natty — colorful socks are, alas, fashionable — and with the polish of one born to public attention (his father, Gil Garcetti , was Los Angeles’s district attorney who prosecuted O.J. Simpson), Garcetti, like dozens of Democrats who have noticed recent presidential history, is asking: Why not me?
Good question. Although presidents Andrew Johnson , Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge had been mayors of Greeneville, Tenn., Buffalo and Northampton, Mass., respectively, no mayor has gone directly from a city hall to the White House. But the 44th president came from eight years in the nation’s most docile and least admirable state legislature (Barack Obama effectively began running for president as soon as he escaped to Washington from Springfield, Ill.). The 45th came from six bankruptcies and an excruciating television show. So, it is not eccentric to think that a two-term mayor of one of the world’s most complicated cities might be as qualified to be president as was, say, the governor of one of the 23 states (Arkansas) with a population smaller than this city’s . And less challenging: Los Angeles’s schools teach children whose parents speak Tagalog and 91 other languages other than English.
Recent history does not suggest that America has such a surplus of presidential talent that it can afford to spurn an audition by a mayor who governs where more than 40 percent of waterborne imports enter the country — through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Where more than 50 percent of residents are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Where immigrants from more than 30 nations form those nations’ largest overseas communities.
Garcetti’s immersion in immigration realities gives him standing to warn his party, which is addicted to identity politics, that “people do want a national identity.” We are “not an ethnic nation but a civic nation,” and Democrats must speak to “identity” rather than “identities.” Also, he brings practicality to the ideological argument about so-called sanctuary cities: When a Korean immigrant, who became a citizen and later a Los Angeles police officer, was shot — not fatally — witnesses and others in the neighborhood, many of them likely illegal immigrants, came forward with information that enabled the police to capture her assailant within hours. Such police-community cooperation is, Garcetti says, jeopardized when local police are viewed as closely allied with federal immigration enforcement.
Garcetti, 47, is a generation younger than some progressives’ pinups (Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former vice president Joe Biden). And, living far from Washington, he is positioned to deplore the Beltway, within which his party has been concentrating power for a century. He suggests a rule for those who are perpetually enraged about the president: “You only get five minutes a day to yell at your TV.” Democrats, he says, sometimes are “the smarty-pants party” that does not “speak plain English.” He seems, however, to be tiptoeing on eggshells when trying to avoid offending his party’s easily offended keepers of litmus tests. When, last September, an interviewer asked him whether gun manufacturers should be liable for the misuse of their products, he said, “I think you have to be open to that.” Such mush (Should we be “open to” distillers’ liability for drunken driving?) does not move nominating electorates.
New York’s mayor from 1933 to 1945, Fiorello La Guardia , a Republican in a Democratic city , famously said, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.” And mayors have what Garcetti considers “the luxury of doing.” But Los Angeles mayors are not powerful — the schools are run by others — and he must get along with the mayors of 87 other cities in Los Angeles County. This is, however, training for the presidency, which is less powerful than those who seek it think it is, until, in office, they must deal with Washington’s rival power centers.
In 2020, California’s presidential primary, which usually has been a June irrelevancy, will occur in March. This might also benefit Kamala D. Harris (D), the state’s freshman U.S. senator. Anyway, Garcetti deserves a hearing. America could do worse. It usually does and, in 33 months, it probably will.