Early this spring, as the number of known coronavirus infections climbed into the low teens in the nation’s second-largest city, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s advisers gave him a small notebook to carry wherever he went. Garcetti, a former Rhodes Scholar, had always demanded data on nearly every issue, from the number of potholes filled to road miles paved, sometimes to the frustration of his staff. The notebook would help him track the spreading virus for himself and satisfy a habit learned from years on the City Council that facts mattered more to him than instinct.
In early March he began filling his notebook pages, quickly, as the rising number of confirmed covid-19 cases jammed hospitals. Los Angeles County reported its first virus-related death on March 11, a 60-something woman and frequent traveler who had spent a layover in South Korea, where covid-19 was flourishing. Eight days later, Garcetti ordered 4 million Angelenos to stay at home, hours before California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) extended the rule statewide and three days before New York state followed suit. Still, just a month later, more than 720 Los Angeles County residents had died because of the virus. Garcetti had a request for his staff. “I’m going to need a bigger notebook,” he said, an offhand reference to “Jaws,” when daunted Roy Scheider says, after staring down the size of the shark, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
A voracious shark eating its way through an unsuspecting community is an apt metaphor for what the novel coronavirus has done to Los Angeles County, a loose affiliation of more than 80 often very different cities that comprise a metroplex of roughly 10 million people. In crisis, such as fires and earthquakes, mudslides and now pandemics, the power naturally accrues to the mayor of Los Angeles.
Garcetti’s early social-separation restrictions, following only those that were adopted in the Bay Area, and medical preparations for a possible surge in coronavirus cases appeared to convince a largely compliant public that Garcetti could be trusted to save the city. After a few short periods of promising dips, though, the fatality numbers in greater Los Angeles have been inexorably climbing. On May 8, Los Angeles health officials reported 883 new coronavirus cases and 51 new deaths, accounting for all but 11 of the new fatalities reported that day in a state of 40 million people. Southern California had traded places with the Bay Area as the pandemic’s most resilient staging ground.
“This virus messes with your mind and messes with your instincts,” Garcetti told me in one of two recent interviews conducted over the social distance of a phone connection. “First and foremost, I tell people: Don’t get locked in with your head. You can’t let your head or your heart dominate. You have to let both do their work.”
Garcetti, a Democrat with national political ambitions, has always been viewed as a “head” guy — more cerebral than gut instinct — throughout his nearly two decades in elected city office. But as he has carved out a larger role in the state’s uneven coronavirus response and a smaller one on the national stage, the heart has asserted itself. In these past few months, he has emerged as something of a soulful technocrat. He starts his day with a virtual prayer meeting and goes to bed reading medical journals. His constituents have never seen more of him, even though the virtual venue is his sometimes grim nightly Facebook live stream, where he delivers the day’s infection and death numbers, often with raw emotion. This is, after all, his city.
And as he fights to save it, Garcetti is reimagining the Los Angeles that might emerge from the pandemic’s devastation. His vision and optimism lie in the fact that the crisis has made visible — like a giant MRI of Los Angeles — the city’s most disturbing attributes. Through his evening addresses, he wants to make it impossible for any Angeleno to look away.
Garcetti has “seen the holes in our systems,” said Miguel Santana, a former Los Angeles city administrative officer. “So now the question is: What is he going to do about it?”
Nearly all of his public remarks carry a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste” undertone, an echo of the slogan used by Obama administration officials during the Great Recession, which Garcetti has assured Angelenos will seem mild compared with what’s to come. “Going back to normal is not acceptable,” Garcetti told me.
There are more than 36,000 people without permanent homes in the city of Los Angeles — a 16 percent rise from the 2018 count — with 75 percent of them living unsheltered on the streets. Garcetti calls the crisis the “moral and humanitarian issue of our time.” There is racial inequity in housing, in education, in employment — a disparity that has been borrowed cruelly by the virus, now infecting and killing blacks and Latinos at a far higher rate than it is white Angelenos. And there is, for now, the city’s newly revealed brilliant blue sky, serving as evidence of its devastating car culture. With the mandatory work-from-home routines, staggered shifts and more than a dozen new public transit lines, Garcetti is wanting to protect that hard-won and inspiring sky.
“Now we’ve seen not just the weakness in our medical pandemic preparedness, but also the weakness in our economy,” Garcetti, 49, said. “We’ve seen the weakness that comes from our inequality. We’ve seen the weakness in our food supply. And all of these weaknesses can be turned into strengths, because we’re also seeing a spiritual moment when we need each other, and we’re willing to do things faster and bigger than we’ve ever done before.”
Garcetti is betting his political future and legacy as mayor on that premise. But can a pandemic provide the incentives and insights to both recast Los Angeles and vault its mayor into the national spotlight?
As a boy, the world Garcetti saw on television was very much his own world. He grew up in Encino on the San Fernando Valley’s south side, a safe, comfortable community — if not yet as wealthy as it would become. Some of the sitcoms of the day used the single-story homes for exterior shots to establish in visual shorthand that the fictional family inside was firmly white middle class.
These were the engineers of L.A.’s aerospace sector, the back-lot geniuses of the movie industry, the other doctors and lawyers and teachers extending a region that stretched out from the sandy edge of the Pacific Ocean to the dry San Gabriel Mountains. “It was a moment when you kind of felt like it was the center of the world,” said Garcetti, recalling long afternoons riding with neighborhood friends on bikes. “I felt like, ‘Oh, yeah, everybody knows the valley.’ But it was just a neutral suburb and a place where kind of the possibilities were limitless.”
In 1982 Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit gave Garcetti’s generic Southern California an identity with “Valley Girl,” a song that defined the place with an airhead vernacular and a teen ennui. (A cult hit movie followed.) The comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was released that same year, and a Southern California of surfing, dope smoking and a kind of charming idiocy became the national image of a place that did not match Garcetti’s home life or ambitions.
“But it was a place that largely accepted you for who you were,” Garcetti said. His home life was eclectic in nearly every sense: in class, ethnicity and profession, a warm reflection of how the city itself was changing at the end of the volatile 1960s and early 1970s. His paternal grandmother, Juanita, born in the United States, was one of 19 children whose father had immigrated to Arizona from Sonora, Mexico. His grandfather, Salvador, emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, eventually enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II. He made a living in rough-edged South Los Angeles as a barber and used to hang out with Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen and other noted Jewish gangsters. He was arrested by an LAPD officer named Tom Bradley, who would go on to become mayor himself.
Their son, Gil, Eric’s father, went on to be the Southern California director of Eugene McCarthy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. Decades later, he became the Los Angeles County district attorney, even though a measure of hell-raising seemed more in the genes.
Eric Garcetti’s mother, Sukey, was raised as far from the Garcetti home in South Los Angeles as could be while still remaining within the same city limits. Her address was rich West Los Angeles, and the family’s wealth originated with her grandfather, Louis Roth, who built a single tailor shop into a chain of successful stores selling high-quality men’s suits.
Gil Garcetti joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office the same year McCarthy’s campaign failed. At the time, he said that he was finished with electoral politics. Sukey ran a charity, then took over the family foundation that worked on anti-poverty issues after her father died. There was a strong social conscience in the family, which Eric Garcetti said was passed down almost without notice to him and his older sister, Dana, who would also later become a prosecutor. But the Garcetti Catholicism and the Roth Judaism fought to a standstill in Eric’s mind when he began considering a formal religion. He ended up neither baptized nor bar mitzvahed.
As the valley became a landmark on the pop culture map, Eric Garcetti began the seventh grade at a prestigious, private all-boys prep academy located roughly between UCLA and Beverly Hills. He rode the public bus to school, a half-Mexican, half-Jewish kid who understood quickly the advantages of his hard-to-define identity in a city with a rapidly changing population. He experimented with high school theater, his favorite role that of “West Side Story’s” Bernardo, the Puerto Rican leader of the New York street gang the Sharks.
“I would joke in Spanish that I was a ‘doble mestizo,’ which means double-mixed,” Garcetti said. “Mexicans are already mixed, given their Indian and European ancestries. But then my mom was Jewish. So I was kind of the Jew and the Mexican American hiding in plain sight — and with an Italian last name.”
“I could hear what people thought about me when they thought I wasn’t around,” he continued. It was after his 1988 high school graduation that “Garcetti” became a household name in Los Angeles. Eric headed east to study at Columbia University just as his father experienced the cage-match quality of then-District Attorney Ira Reiner’s office.
Gil Garcetti had worked his way up to be chief deputy to Reiner, among the city’s most powerful political figures. But in a setback, Garcetti, then a 20-year veteran of the office, learned one morning in the Los Angeles Times that he’d been demoted. Soon after, Reiner, then in his 50s, failed to win convictions in the case of four white LAPD officers caught on film brutally beating Rodney King, an unarmed black motorist. The officers’ acquittal set off days of rioting in the city.
In 1992, four years after his demotion, Garcetti beat Reiner in the primary for the job and later that year became district attorney. As he took office, the city’s race relations had healed little since the riots. Then on the night of June 12, 1994, police discovered the bodies of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Los Angeles’s case of the century had started.
At the time, Eric Garcetti was thriving at Columbia as a political science major. He won a Rhodes Scholarship, which took him to the Queen’s College at Oxford. But Eric was in California as the obsession over the Simpson case intensified. He had returned from Oxford the previous year to work on the gubernatorial campaign of state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D), former governor Jerry Brown’s sister, who lost to incumbent Pete Wilson (R) in 1994.
That election year saw a summer rife with racial anger. Wilson championed Proposition 187, which state voters passed easily, denying undocumented residents basic health care, public education and other services. Within days, a federal judge had blocked the measure from taking effect, and a federal court later found it to be unconstitutional. “I was marching on the streets against Prop. 187, but O.J. had become the center of the universe for everybody,” Garcetti said. “All these people were suddenly becoming celebrities. It was surreal.”
When it was over, a year later, Garcetti was back at Oxford and Simpson had been acquitted. But Garcetti and his father believe that even in the loss there was something the public learned from the spectacle. “It really is the seed that was planted and grew into an awareness of domestic violence, in a mass way, in this country,” Eric Garcetti said. “My dad, you know, grew up, I think, with some domestic violence in his household with his parents. His dad was alcoholic. My grandpa, you know, was an imperfect guy, to say the least. And I don’t know if he was ever physically abusive, but it just was something that my dad was very conscious of.”
As residents stay home because of the pandemic, traffic in Los Angeles has decreased. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
A woman jogs with a face shield in Venice Beach. (David McNew/Getty Images)
LEFT: As residents stay home because of the pandemic, traffic in Los Angeles has decreased. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press) RIGHT: A woman jogs with a face shield in Venice Beach. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Despite the Simpson verdict, Gil Garcetti survived his 1996 reelection race. But four years later he lost badly to Steve Cooley, a veteran prosecutor.
In college, Eric spent two summers in Myanmar’s eastern jungles teaching civil disobedience to dissidents facing a brutal dictatorship. He also earned a master’s degree from Columbia in international affairs. He was of Los Angeles, but he had been removed from its day-to-day life for formidable periods of his development. Afterward, Eric began his first run for public office, a bid for the vacant City Council District 13 seat, a cramped, oddly shaped area between Interstate 5 and U.S. Highway 101 that includes some of Hollywood, Echo Park and Silver Lake. When Garcetti first ran in 2001, 65 percent of the district was Latino and most spoke only Spanish. It has always been a district with a highly transient population — today eight in 10 rent, rather than own, their homes — but many of its neighborhoods have also gentrified over the years.
As he began his door-knocking in 2000, he was an assistant professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, unsure how his somewhat notorious last name would play with voters. The reaction was mixed, as his father’s polarizing reputation cropped up frequently. But at 30, Garcetti won the seat in a close race. He won the next two in landslides, campaigning on a no-flash, close-to-the-ground, constituent-first agenda. He spent the last six years on the council as president, and his chief goal was to prove to the public that a city the size and complexity of Los Angeles could be run with competence. Garcetti would be more stiffly challenged to achieve that goal in his next job.
It has never been cool to be the mayor of Los Angeles. There’s never been New York City mayoral swagger here or Chicago tough talk. Virtually no one knows the mayor in this vast, distracted city until things go wrong. A fire burns through Malibu Canyon. An earthquake in the desert reminds the city it may be living on borrowed time. Once funky Venice Beach is overrun by tech companies, or a homeless shelter is on its way to your neighborhood. Then everybody turns to you to fix it.
“Really,” Garcetti said, “the main issue that’s brought me to politics is, is race, ethnicity, human rights, gender.”
Garcetti ran for the office anyway; his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, had bumped up against the two-term limit so was ineligible to run again, leaving a rare open seat in 2013. Garcetti prevailed in a close contest against Wendy Greuel, the city controller. He won the wealthy West Side and much of the Latino vote, his polished conversational Spanish coming in handy. But Greuel beat him among African Americans. Once a crucial part of a winning mayoral coalition, the African American share of the electorate has since fallen into the single digits.
Those results showed that Garcetti had work to do winning over African American constituents. In his first “state of the city” address, Garcetti pledged a “back to basics” approach to local government. His priorities were bland enough for Governing magazine to ask in a headline, “Does Eric Garcetti have a big enough vision for L.A.?” True to form, in the same speech the following year, Garcetti outlined plans for building out the public transportation system and adding police. But even earlier in the talk he pledged to add 5,000 trash cans to city streets, allowing sanitation workers to pick up an additional 10,000 tons of trash a year.
“I think the book on Garcetti, correctly, has been that he is smart, articulate, principled, kind of an incrementalist and cautious,” said Jim Newton, a distinguished former Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the Richard Riordan administration and now teaches at UCLA. “And so what I think all of that has added up to — up to this point, anyway — is a kind of steady but unspectacular time as mayor.”
Garcetti’s predecessor, Villaraigosa, was a garrulous, tactile politician who effectively bounced from public event to public event. Garcetti’s public schedule includes few appearances. That was true even before the pandemic made them impossible. While Villaraigosa would swear in staff meetings when he didn’t like what he heard, Garcetti often keeps his thoughts to himself. Some former advisers compare him to Barack Obama, cerebral sometimes to the point of opacity. And as with the former president, the criticism often focuses on his caution.
Garcetti has grown bolder in office, though. As he campaigned for reelection, he talked about all the city roads that had been paved on his watch, but he also celebrated the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour — a benefit to an estimated 600,000 Angelenos — and a low unemployment rate. And, he noted, a sports-crazed city that had gone years without an NFL team now had two. In July 2017, Garcetti helped secure the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games for Los Angeles, the first time the summer event will be hosted in the United States in more than three decades. He won reelection easily.
“He’s seen the holes in our systems,” said Miguel Santana, the former Los Angeles city administrative officer who worked closely with Villaraigosa and Garcetti. “So now the question is: What is he going to do about it?”
For Garcetti and much of Los Angeles, the idea of thinking big has often meant looking down — to the sidewalks and underpasses, medians and itinerant tent cities where the homeless live. The year Garcetti began his second term, more than 55,000 people were without permanent places to live in Los Angeles County, a 17 percent increase from the previous year. Of those, a staggering 40,000 people slept outdoors, the so-called unsheltered. And each year the problem became more challenging. Property prices and construction costs for homeless projects reached an average of $521,000 per unit. The bureaucracy was a maze, public accountability was missing, neighborhoods were suing the city to keep shelters out, and the number of those sleeping outside was growing.
“Los Angeles,” Garcetti said in his 2018 state of the city speech, during which he outlined a more than doubling of his homeless budget, “is coming together to confront the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time.”
In November 2016, Los Angeles residents voted to tax themselves to address the crisis, passing Proposition HHH by a wide margin. The measure will allow the city to borrow $1.2 billion to pay for an estimated 10,000 apartments and houses for the homeless, as well as fund some mental health and addiction treatment centers. The private sector is a key partner.
“This is where the paradigm shift has to happen,” said Santana, who was instrumental in ensuring that Proposition HHH vaulted over the two-thirds majority needed for passage. “This is a forever problem that needs a forever solution.”
As the coronavirus began to take hold in Los Angeles, the Garcetti administration had just begun to open with great fanfare some of the first apartment buildings funded through the ballot measure. The rollout stalled quickly. Only one has opened so far, and the virus has placed in limbo many of the 112 projects planned. Last year, President Trump dismissed both Newsom and Garcetti as incompetent on the homeless issue, threatening intervention to house the homeless in local federal buildings. But nothing like that has happened.
During the pandemic, Newsom and Garcetti, once seen as possible rivals and may be again, have been relatively quiet in their criticism of the federal government, and Trump has even praised Newsom for the work he is doing to control the virus. Trump also chose the Port of Los Angeles over a virus-battered Seattle to dock the USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship that added important medical-bed capacity to L.A.’s preparations for a spike in infections. It left port in mid-May after a nearly two-month stay.
But, as Trump began pushing harder for a full opening of the economy by the summer tourism season, his patience with Garcetti’s cautious approach began to wear thin. In a May 22 letter to the mayor, the U.S. Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Eric S. Dreiband, warned Garcetti that recent comments by Los Angeles County health officials that the stay-at-home order could remain in place through much of the summer could be an “arbitrary and heavy-handed” use of local power. Garcetti has spoken recently of loosening some of the regulations by July 4. But the Los Angeles County numbers are still by far the highest in the state; on the day of the Justice Department’s written warning, 35 Angelenos died of the virus and 1,072 more were infected. “Even in times of emergency, when governments may impose reasonable and temporary restrictions, the Constitution and federal statutory law prohibit arbitrary, unreasonable actions,” Dreiband wrote. “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
Garcetti had no immediate response to the Justice Department’s warning. But the mayor has said repeatedly that infection rates, new deaths and hospital capacity would determine when the city would open fully again.
“I’ve been happy to bash the hell out of his policies in order to stand up for our values,” Garcetti said, referring most recently to Trump’s temporary ban on allowing immigrants into the country. “But I never see the utility in playing a game that allows him to get away from his responsibilities as president.”
Since the virus emerged, Newsom has helped secure thousands of hotel rooms statewide to house some of the homeless through the crisis, a large step toward isolating a population where social distancing is almost an impossibility. The Trump administration is helping. It’s called Project Roomkey, and so far 3,000 hotel rooms have been secured in Los Angeles County for homeless residents, more than half of them already filled. Nearly as important is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged to reimburse the state up to 75 percent of its $150 million in costs associated with housing the homeless during the crisis.
“These hotels, I think, are going to be doing poorly for quite some time and, so, we have some time, but they’re not going to be just shelters forever,” Garcetti said. “We have to really be smart about moving people from there into other housing and not onto the streets. But look, if the feds come through with some money and even the coronavirus relief funds, we are going to spend some in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, hopefully together with the county, on solutions beyond just the hotel rooms they’re in today. And that’s a really amazing opportunity.”
Garcetti has sought federal assistance for years to confront the homeless problem. Last year, he hosted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on a tour of Skid Row, the ragged heart of the city’s homeless crisis, where Garcetti volunteered as a teen. It is his hope today that the federal funding will remain in place indefinitely.
“The verdict is still out on whether any of this can live beyond the virus,” said Omar Muhammad, pastor of the church that worships out of the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row. Muhammad, who preaches to roughly 150 parishioners each Sunday, said many homeless have moved out of the shelter since Project Roomkey began. “It feels one step closer,” he said, “and as a pastor, I like one step closer.”
“This event has put us all on an equal playing field,” Muhammad added. “This is the equal opportunity for an equal-opportunity offender in terms of what it does to humans. So I think in that case, we have all become closer because we have all come in touch with our mortality and our humanity.”
In 2018 Garcetti pondered a run for the White House. “I think I more wanted to replace the president than be the president at this moment.”
The homelessness issue in Los Angeles is linked tightly to the African American community, a population that over decades has suffered discrimination in housing across the county. The data is stunning. Accounting for roughly 9 percent of L.A.’s population, African Americans make up 40 percent of its homeless.
“It’s a pretty small jump from finding out that five times more homeless are African American to understanding why they are getting hardest hit by the virus,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University Los Angeles.
The mayor has deployed medical teams to the city streets to make coronavirus checks on the homeless. So far there has not been a major outbreak among the city’s 36,000 homeless, a number that amounts to a 16 percent increase from the previous year. The vast majority of them are living outside.
“What lessons do I hope we learn? That leadership matters,” said Fred Ali, chief executive of the Weingart Foundation, a philanthropic organization that works on homeless issues. Ali has criticized Garcetti for allowing bureaucratic bickering — mostly between city and county agencies — to slow affordable housing construction and other services for the homeless. He has seen a more decisive Garcetti through the crisis.
“After this is over, I hope some attention will be paid toward creating a more effective regional government structure to run homeless policy,” Ali said. “I think we’re in a different time now, and I hope it continues.” Sonenshein said that before the crisis, despite Garcetti’s daily attention to the issue, moving the homeless into housing was going far more slowly than voters had expected given the big money approved just a few years ago. “It is marginally easier to house people now that it is seen as a large part of a public health crisis,” Sonenshein said. “This is not to say that continuing this way after the virus will not meet resistance. But it has opened up some public policy positions to some point.”
Garcetti is counting on a post-virus shift in attitude, as the building of new transitional homes picks up again, and Angelenos recall that in the city’s empty streets, it was often only the homeless who remained visible throughout the stay-at-home order. He is doing so through his evening addresses, drawing on the shameful legacy that only the crisis around World War II and the Great Depression appeared to awake the nation to inequality. The sense of national unfairness helped lead not just to new government-run social programs, but also to an emboldened and angry civil society that drove the civil rights movement. He believes that his city is living through a similar transitional moment made possible by the virus, and that a failure to address institutional racism and its associated problems now will mean, in his words, that “all we’ll have done is survive this with a bunch of scar tissue.”
But virus-undermined tax revenue will leave the city and its institutions with at least $230 million less than predicted before the virus hit. He insists, though, in his remarks to various constituents, that these are the crises “during which the world resets.” “We’re still woefully unequal with an economy that doesn’t work for a lot of people, a legacy of discrimination that kills people unequally when it comes to threats like this new coronavirus,” Garcetti said. “And to me, really, the main issue that’s brought me to politics is, is race, ethnicity, human rights, gender,” he continued. “I mean, it’s really that idea that if you can’t see it, you don’t know it. And if you don’t know it, you can’t see it. And this virus doesn’t discriminate in terms of who it infects, but it does discriminate in terms of who gets killed.”
In addressing post-crisis race relations, Garcetti will also have to assist an even larger Latino population, many destitute from losing jobs during the shutdown. Where homelessness is disproportionately hitting the black community here, Latinos, some undocumented, are more vulnerable to workplace protection issues. Are Latinos being forced back to work — in factories and in fields — in unsafe conditions? Is child care in place for those who are allowed to return or being forced to? The list of these issues is long. But it has prompted Sonenshein and others to call for the creation of “an equity agenda,” which in the past has brought blacks, Latinos, whites and others together around issues of economic fairness for those affected most by the virus.
“Pretty quickly people started to ask about which families have laptops at home and which do not — a question that suddenly meant whether or not a child could attend school,” Sonenshein said. “These kinds of issues on an equity agenda addressed to the mayor and others is going to clearly outline the implications of the epidemic and play a big part in our rebuilding.”
There are still plenty of cars on the road in Los Angeles, but the decline in numbers is notable. The orange haze, most prevalent near sundown and helping to create the city’s beautiful, if ominous, over-the-ocean sunsets, has mostly vanished. “We won that sky by saving each other from a disease,” Garcetti said in an April speech. “If we can keep that sky blue, we can save many more lives from asthma, from cancer and from climate catastrophe. Do we dare do any less?”
Under Garcetti’s watch, at least three new rail lines have been inaugurated, with several major projects still in the works. Those include a light-rail line linking underserved South Los Angeles to the Los Angeles International Airport, and a subway line running from downtown L.A. to Westwood, allowing commuters to avoid some of the city’s busiest freeways and avenues. Also, in another similarity to the public’s approach to the homeless issue, Los Angeles County residents voted to tax themselves to relieve traffic and help “green” the region with the nation’s worst air pollution.
Passed in November 2016, Measure M will raise the local sales tax to pay for $120 billion of mass transit and bike projects, including roughly doubling the size of L.A.’s rail system over the next four decades. All are designed to keep cars off the road, reduce tailpipe emissions and cut down on work time wasted in traffic, which the city’s Metro agency estimates to be 81 hours annually per Angeleno.
“It’s not so much the transportation piece. I’m not worried about that,” Garcetti said. “Maybe, in the short term, people will try to drive after this. But our memories are short. And I think in other places, once pandemics are over, you know, people come back to public transportation in cities in Asia, etc., and we’re going to keep building.”
Last year, Garcetti was elected chairman of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. It comprises the mayors of the world’s largest urban centers and, jokingly, he said it sometimes feels “like a superhero movie where someone says, ‘Get me the mayors.’ ” He has had three recent calls with the group, with the discussion primarily centered on how climate change post-virus could be attacked in the same international way as covid-19.
“The idea of a global Green New Deal, which I’ve been pushing, is something that’s very micro-specific for L.A., and it’s also as macro as it can get for the world,” he said. “This crisis reminds us again that most of the threats we face, you know, don’t care about our borders.”
The county’s public transportation system is being built broadly, thanks in large part to Measure M money, and its use is far less a stigma than it used to be in this city that’s carved up by large strips of pavement, shaded by interstate underpasses and crowded with convertibles. Garcetti has courted business leaders to continue this momentum once the crisis ends.
A few weeks ago, Garcetti convened business leaders, including Maria S. Salinas, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, to a meeting about his plans for the coming weeks. It was a pleasant surprise, Salinas said, that the mayor wanted to hear their thoughts on what the demands of the next economy will be. In many ways, though, Salinas and others in business already sound like Garcetti on the subject. She said the pandemic “may have given us a taste of the future of work.”
“Does everyone need to go to the office?” she asked. “Do we continue to stagger our scheduling? Should we be stepping up our workplace sanitation? We’ve also demonstrated that we’re dependent on systems like child care and schools. So our interdependencies with each other will probably need to be highlighted more in the new economy versus what we had before.”
In 2018, Garcetti traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first presidential voting states, and pondered a run for the White House. It never really took off — “I think I more wanted to replace the president than be the president at this moment,” Garcetti told me — and, without a larger national profile, he dropped out quickly, endorsing former vice president Joe Biden. He now serves on Biden’s vice presidential search committee.
“It wasn’t even a tough decision.” Garcetti said of his brief foray. “I knew that I couldn’t run a city and run for president. And while some people, you know, maybe can juggle the two jobs, my conscience wouldn’t have let me be in Iowa when there was a fire in L.A.”
But what he has ended up facing in his city is far more dire than a fire. Early in the coronavirus crisis, as the number of dead increased, his wife, Amy Wakeland, set up a morning conference call for her husband and a cross-section of religious leaders: a rabbi, an imam, an African American pastor and an Episcopal priest, among others. The first day of the call, Garcetti said, the rabbi read the beginning of Psalm 23, recognized mostly for its line, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The image resonated grimly with Garcetti, but he said the rabbi explained the hope held in the passage. As the mayor recalled, the rabbi told the group that, if there is shadow, then there must also be light.
“I think it’s really important for me not to lose the people in the numbers,” Garcetti said. “And, you know, the message for people, I think, is that when people get antsy about their situation and yet they haven’t been directly hit yet, people forget what this is really about. This is about the preciousness of life.” This is his daily solace, followed by his Zoom-facilitated exercise group.
As of the last week in May, more than 49,000 county residents had contracted the virus and at least 2,250 had died from it. The region’s once-enviable economy has been ravaged. With an unemployment rate of 4 percent in December, the county’s jobless rate is projected to reach 32 percent by summer. Travel to and from Los Angeles-area airports has dropped 95 percent. In presenting this year’s city budget, Garcetti called it a “document of our pain.”
All Angelenos except small children are now required to wear face masks anytime they are outside of their homes. Health officials have warned that the full stay-at-home order may last months, although some loosening, with plenty of precautionary rules attached, is taking place amid increasing economic despair. A survey of 2,000 Los Angeles County residents conducted in late March and early April by Loyola Marymount University found that 85 percent of respondents have either a fair or great deal of confidence in Garcetti’s ability to manage the crisis. “He’s been out in front of the issue, meaning that he’s been very aggressive about what steps need to be taken,” said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and Chicano/Chicana studies at Loyola Marymount. “And he’s communicating incredibly effectively with his daily news conference.”
Garcetti has turned his 5:15 p.m. Pacific time live stream into something of a civic moment. Alone with a sign-language interpreter in a dark wood-paneled room, standing behind a modest lectern, Garcetti starts with the day’s death toll and new infections, never sidestepping the gravity.
“It’s the sort of crisis well-suited to his strengths: He is smart, good with data, comfortable with science,” said Newton, the UCLA lecturer. “There’s no bombast. There’s no blaming. There’s no ridiculousness. It’s very steady and even and straightforward. All of which are the kind of character traits associated with him that I think make him well-suited to this crisis.”
About a half-hour into his 35-minute state of the city address in April, Garcetti said: “I’ve never before hesitated to assure you that our city is strong, but I won’t say those words tonight. Our city is under attack. Our daily life is unrecognizable. We are bowed and we are worn down. We are grieving our dead.” That last sentence almost stayed in his throat as he choked up.
“There is rarely a day that I don’t have moments where I choke up,” Garcetti told me. Among all the changes he’s seen to his daily routine, Garcetti now carries with him what he wryly calls the “bible,” an old-school three-ring binder filled each day by his staff with 20 fresh blank pages, which he tops first with a notation of how long the city shutdown has endured.
“D40,” he wrote at the top of a first page this spring. Day 40 — and no end date in sight. His computer and smartphone deliver a coronavirus “dashboard” to him in real time, data from around the county, country and the world. His afternoon briefing books can run 60 pages. Said Newton, “He is one of the few politicians I’ll bet actually reads all of it.”
“The question ahead is not just about how we reopen,” Garcetti told me. “It’s been how we recover and then how we reimagine.”
Scott Wilson is a senior national correspondent at The Washington Post who writes about California and the American West.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks and Daniele Seiss.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe