LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Rhodes Scholar and urban planning wonk in a city that generally prefers its politicians to be less eclectic, Los Angeles mayor-elect Eric Garcetti will take the reins as the nation’s second-largest city teeters between recovery and financial ruin.
Despite a strong renewal in the city’s housing market in recent months, unemployment remains higher than the state average, and the city’s budget deficit could top $1 billion within four years. Trees are going untrimmed, streets unpaved and the fire department has had its budget slashed.
Garcetti, who takes over on July 1, promised on Wednesday to “focus like a laser” on the local economy, and renegotiate pay raises and other deals with the city’s unions.
But to do that, he may have to push beyond the skills he has honed as a consensus builder and wrench changes from a city whose bureaucracy and citizenry are not used to being told what to do - even by their mayor.
“In L.A., you are constantly dealing with powerful folks that you can’t order around,” said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who directs the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “On the other hand, he’s going to have to understand when the consensus approach isn’t working.”
At 42, Garcetti embodies a legacy that in many ways reflects the city’s political, intellectual and ethnic sub-cultures.
His father, Gil Garcetti, was a high-profile prosecutor who was elected district attorney of Los Angeles County when Eric was in his early 20s, and the future mayor grew up among the city’s Democratic elite.
His education at the exclusive Harvard School for Boys was among the most prestigious in the region, landing him a spot at Columbia University and later, at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Garcetti’s cultural background also reflects the city’s polyglot: His father is of mixed Italian and Mexican descent, and his mother is Jewish.
At 29, Garcetti ran for city council, and was elected to represent the sagging neighborhoods of old Hollywood, then undergoing the first sparks of revitalization, shortly after his 30th birthday in 2001.
Gil Garcetti told Reuters his son was extraordinary even as a small child.
“I first saw it when he was 8 years old,” the elder Garcetti said as he prepared to join his son onstage at an election night party at the storied Hollywood Palladium. At a piano competition at a local music school where Eric took lessons, Gil Garcetti said he was initially miffed when his son wasn’t named a top player for his age group.
That annoyance gave way to pride, he said, when Eric was named best player for the entire school - including young adults who had been playing for years.
Eric Garcetti knew as a young man that he wanted to go into public service, Gil Garcetti said, declining his father’s offer to support him after college to pursue a life of music.
His three terms on the city council were active and, by most accounts, successful. He played a key role in the revitalization of Hollywood, and served as council president.
Deeply interested in cutting-edge theories of urban planning, he pressed for carefully planned, higher density development in his district, which had decades earlier traded the glamour of the early years of the movie business for seedy streets, prostitution and a series of tourist traps.
“He’s got an incredible mind,” said supporter Agustin “Augie” Gorbea, a longtime Los Angeles activist in gay rights and Latino politics. “You tell him one thing, and he’ll tell you five things about it.”
Garcetti met his wife, Amy Wakeland, when the two were Rhodes Scholars together. They remodeled a house in the funky community of Echo Park that was featured in an architectural magazine, and adopted a daughter, Maya, who is 18 months old.
On the campaign trail, Garcetti played the “urban hipster modern politician,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, mounting an Obama-style campaign that relied heavily on grass roots activists and social media.
His effort contrasted with opponent Wendy Greuel’s more traditional efforts and heavyweight endorsements that included the city’s biggest labor union and former President Bill Clinton, Jeffe said.
As mayor, Garcetti will inherit considerable challenges.
Unemployment in Los Angeles County hovered around 10 percent in April, according to state data released last week, higher than the overall California average of 9 percent.
The city, which has set a budget of $7.7 billion for the new fiscal year beginning in July, has a growing deficit that could top $1 billion within four years, projections show, driven by the growing salary, health care and pension costs of its 30,000 employees.
An employee pay raise of 5.5 percent, which Garcetti helped negotiate as a council member, is due in January. And one report, by the independent watchdog Common Sense, says the city should have nearly $26 billion more in its pension funds than it has today to be able to pay out benefits to all current and former employees in retirement without having to borrow money or raid its general fund.
In response to questions from Reuters, Garcetti said that among his first steps as mayor would be to ask city employees to pay a greater portion of the cost of their health care plans. He also said he would seek greater efficiency in running city departments.
He stopped short of promising to follow the advice of outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and refuse to give union employees their raises next winter, saying it would not be legal simply to refuse the payment.
“Right now it’s legally due, but it’s something we will talk about,” he said. “We will be talking about how to save money.”
But talking about saving money may not be enough. Sonenshein, the political scientist, said this was just the sort of situation that may test Garcetti’s mettle in ways that he may not have anticipated.
“He has to wade in,” Sonenshein said. “This is going to be a very big deal.”
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker