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A few days before Karen Bass was sworn in on Sunday as the first female mayor of Los Angeles, term-limited Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti was making his farewell tour through South Los Angeles.
He donned a hard hat to survey construction at a massive affordable housing site, checked in on formerly unsheltered residents at a motel-to-interim housing conversion and toured another spacious campus with more than 90 shelter beds and nearly 200 units for the formerly unhoused.
For more than a year, Garcetti was a bystander as the LA mayoral candidates lamented the state of the city – from the ongoing homelessness crisis with about 42,000 people living on the streets, to concerns about crime and a series of corruption scandals on the City Council.
Amid the unease and disquiet that drove the dynamics of this year’s race, Garcetti and his team have made progress since he was elected in 2013 on a broad array of metrics including the increase in shelter beds and affordable housing units, the expansion of police-worn body cameras, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and widespread water conservation efforts. While he says he loathes questions about his legacy, he clearly is intent on setting the record straight.
As he leaves office, Garcetti’s nomination to be US ambassador to India – announced in July 2021 – is still in limbo. His nomination has been held up for months because of concerns among senators on both sides about allegations that he ignored alleged sexual harassment and bullying by one of his former senior political aides. Garcetti has repeatedly denied that he ignored those allegations.
Garcetti remains optimistic that he will get confirmed to the ambassadorship, and he said the delay was an unexpected “gift” because it allowed him to work through the last day of his term. CNN spoke to Garcetti last week about his future, his record and the state of the city as he returns to private life.
The following excerpts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Reston: What’s your level of confidence right now about whether you’ll be confirmed and when?
Garcetti: I’ve stopped doing the guessing game of the when, but I feel quite optimistic. I have good support from Republicans and Democrats who recognize this is a critical position. … I can’t wait to get to work. Even if it was longer than was first estimated, it was kind of a gift to be here. … To be there for the finishing of the Crenshaw line, which will bring transit to LAX – finally bringing trains to planes; seeing records amount of housing getting built. Or, even dealing with crises like the (leaked audio) tapes that came out of City Hall. … And, seeing the city through the end of the crisis of Covid. To me it was a gift, and made me have no guilt about leaving a day early.
Reston: When you think about your major accomplishments all the way back to when you were a council member, what is different about the state of the city today than when you started that you had a real hand in changing?
Garcetti: The honest answer is Los Angeles is a harder place to live in than the Los Angeles I grew up in. Politicians usually run from things that are complicated to explain or that take a long time to do. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I like those problems the most. Climate change? No, we might not solve it in our lifetime, but our Green New Deal is the strongest of any city in the world…
We won the Olympics. It’s like the biggest civic prize in the world, which isn’t just about an amazing sports event. It’s about really showing who you are to the world. … And, then transit. Our city has been where a car is king – the car capital of the world – and we’re building 15 transit lines off of one (ballot) measure. … We’ve tripled the pace of the housing, period. Tripled and passed a plan to double that again, which means that if we had a decade of that kind of growth to overcome four decades of the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality, LA could actually be a place where you can dream of owning a home again.
Reston: We just went through a mayor’s race where invariably, when you’d talk to voters, they would say they see all of this money from the state and city going into homelessness, and they don’t see things getting better. When is it that you think people will feel the change of what’s happening?
Garcetti: Forty years of inaction is responsible for it. … The curve just kept going up. We’ve now flattened (the curve), and I believe we’re actually starting to bend it. I can see that here. I’m not in any way saying you don’t see a ton of tents, but we cleaned up Venice. There’s encampments that are thinning out. … I don’t think people should have to wait the decade, but if you want the honest answer, when we have a right to housing in this country, when the housing vouchers that we have – housing choice vouchers, section eight – are an entitlement and not a lottery. … When it comes to housing in this country, in LA, it’s one out of eight people who qualify to get a voucher, and they wait years for that. … If this was easy, it would’ve been solved a long time ago.
Reston: Karen Bass, when she gave her first post-election speech, said she was going to solve homelessness. Is that a promise she can keep?
Garcetti: We all should set that as a goal. … If we want to end homelessness, we can point to countries that are not as wealthy as us, that actually have. Don’t tell me it’s actually not possible.
Reston: So, the other half of the equation – as you talked about – is not under your control as the mayor, and that’s the mental health space. There’ve been a lot of committee hearings in Washington about these issues, but nothing ever seems to emerge in terms of a grand plan. What do you want to see happen there?
Garcetti: This country is experiencing a mental health crisis and addiction crisis. There are not enough professionals who can treat mental health afflictions, and we have no right to mental health care in this country. … Treating trauma and mental health issues is the biggest gap in the American health care system by far. And if people don’t treat this like a health crisis – together (with) the housing crisis, not either or, both – you’re not going to ever see the end of homelessness in America.
Reston: I want to pivot to politics. You’re waiting on your own confirmation. (California Sen.) Dianne Feinstein’s been in her office for a long time. There are people who have raised concerns about her mental acuity. Do you feel that the people of California, at this point, are getting full representation from that office?
Garcetti: I mean, I can bear witness to that. I have conversations with her, even this past year, that have been effective and critical for my city on transportation. There’s so many places – whether it’s the torture report or whether it’s the building of the Wilshire subway down in the heart of LA – where she has been an amazing representative.
Reston: She’s not raising a lot of money though, and folks expect that she will step down at some point. Is that an office that would interest you in the future?
Garcetti: I expect to be in India and not around for that campaign. … I generally don’t close doors, but after 20 years, I think it’s really important to take time to reflect. … I’ve read two novels in 10 years. I’ve read maybe 10 non-fiction books (during) that time. I listen to a little music now and again, but I haven’t played the piano. …Human beings always are like, ‘What are you going to do next?’ Nobody asks, ‘Who do you want to be next?’ I want to spend a little time on who I want to be.
Reston: If (President Joe) Biden were to stand down and not run for president, you could potentially have both (Vice President) Kamala Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom running for president at the same time. Who would you back?
Garcetti: I don’t answer hypotheticals. I’ve never said that to anybody, but I don’t. And by the way, look, I genuinely love both of them. Kamala has been a friend since she was district attorney (of San Francisco) and I was a council member and we were co-chairs of the Obama campaign. Gavin, I got to know in a very personal way (during the pandemic), and I think he’s a really critical leader for our country. I mean, I’ve always known him decently well, but wartime leadership together is a different level of bond.
Reston: When you think about the things that still are on your bucket list – beyond being an ambassador – what are the things you’re most excited about right now? And I need an update on how many countries you’ve visited – since you said you were going to try to get to all of the countries in the world.
Garcetti: I think I’m close to 100 now. One thing that was on my bucket list – I didn’t say it to anyone – but at our staff party, I finally got to crowd surf. They lifted me up and just started doing it. [The song was Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”]. On my bucket list (is) a sophisticated Netflix show with all these guys about City Hall. I’d love to get back to something creative, whether it’s my music or developing drama out of the world that I’ve lived in from the perspective of somebody who came out of theater.
Reston: So, what’s the screenplay you would write – with someone else potentially?
Garcetti: I was working on a musical a long time ago that I thought would be really interesting in LA. It starts with the riots and it ends with the (Northridge) earthquake – ’92 to ‘94 – as the internet first comes. That moment kind of defined us. A group of young professionals living together. … A lot of people said, Let’s develop a City Hall (series). ‘The Wire’ was good, but there’s not been, since that, a really good series about City Hall. That would be kind of fun.