You could call Los Angeles mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti a man of many talents. He's a conga and keyboard player who's good enough to have performed on stage with Moby. He's likeable. Enough so that hipsters and foodies – the tastemakers of our generation – think of the man as a beacon of hope for the troubled city of Los Angeles. And he's built up enough Hollywood cachet that Will Ferrell felt compelled to endorse him. Salma Hayek did too, and in two languages.
Garcetti's many talents have definitely helped him rise to the top of the pack in Los Angeles' current mayoral race. But beneath all the style, is there enough substance to turn around the city's fortunes?
Garcetti, 41, the former president of the Los Angeles City Council, has a narrow lead in the race's few public polls over his closest rival, City Controller Wendy Greuel. And last week he earned the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times leading into the March 5 non-partisan primary.
Throughout the campaign, Garcetti has eschewed the image of a square politician. He's the kind of guy who, on the one hand, jams a little on stage for a fundraiser but also finds the time to do an AMA on Reddit. Just to keep up with the kids.
The councilman, whose district includes Hollywood, lives in Silver Lake -- a neighborhood home to a mix of young hipsters and long-time Latino and Asian residents -- where he claims to grow most of his own food. As a result, he's sprouted a fake Twitter account that skewers his eclectic lifestyle.
While Garcetti's personality has brought some levity into the campaign, the current state of Los Angeles is no laughing matter. The city faces a budget deficit of more than $200 million next year, ballooning pension costs, double-digit unemployment, and chronically underperforming schools.
The city's budget turmoil has gotten so severe that it has resulted in cuts to basic city services like sidewalk, road, and park maintenance. Budget cuts have even been blamed for slower 911 response times. Unfortunately for Garcetti, he sits at the center of these issues.
Before the 2008 recession hit Garcetti, along with other city leaders, approved a plan that added hundreds of police officers and granted a 25 percent raise to city employees over five years, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was joined by Greuel and another 2013 mayoral candidate, Jan Perry, in backing the plan. That plan, combined with the economic downturn and rising pension costs helped fuel the budget woes the city is experiencing today.
Even in endorsing Garcetti, a registered Democrat, the Times said that he "must bear some responsibility" for the city's fiscal mess.
But Garcetti considers his service on the council as a positive, pointing to the redevelopment, revitalization, and new businesses in his district as well as his efforts to tackle the city's fiscal woes before they became even worse.
In 2009, he also helped pass an early retirement plan for city employees that saved the city $230 million in salary and pension reductions, according to the Times. And he also pushed for policies that would raise the retirement age for new city employees and that would force them to pay for a small portion of their own health benefits.
"We had the four toughest years that we have faced in my lifetime, fiscally, and I steered us away from bankruptcy through really tough choices by doing pension reform and looking at cost savings and cuts," he said during an interview with ABC/Univision. "The status quo would have been to keep things going and go off the cliff. The status quo would have been accepting that a place like Hollywood is always going to be a dump. But I don't accept the status quo and I am proud of what we have been able to do to turn things around."
[ANY EXAMPLES OF HOW HE BUILT COMPROMISE?} Many city leaders [LIKE WHO?] have praised Garcetti for displaying a knack for building compromise among budget hawks and labor groups while attempting to close the city's budget gap [AS COUNCILMAN?]. On the flip side, he has been criticized behind the scenes as a leader who is too flexible to the demands of others.
Garcetti's CURRENT? budget plan has drawn questions from California political observers over whether it can actually repair the city's budget. He's proposed eliminating a tax on businesses that would cost the city $400 million in revenue as it faces an existing shortfall. But Garcetti called the tax the least competitive in L.A. County," saying that businesses of all types have fled for greener pastures.
The candidate says he would phase out the tax over the course of 15 years, and that would ease the revenue hit. He predicted that increased business activity would provide more tax revenue overall and has voiced support for further reducing healthcare and pension costs.
Garcetti also faces the task of proposing reforms for Los Angeles' schools, which have a highschool graduation rate that's 15 percentage points below the state average.
While Los Angeles' mayor does not have direct control over the city's public schools, Garcetti did receive the endorsement of the union that represents public school teachers in Los Angeles County. But he said that would not stop him from proposing ways to reform the city's educational system. At the same time, he came to the defense of public school teachers, whom he said have been unfairly vilified by some reformers.
"We are so fixated on getting rid of the very worst teachers, which understandably we should be focused on, that we have stopped the development of teachers in general and the praising of them for what they do," he said.
At this point in the race, nothing indicates that Angelenos have committed to any one candidate, and that inclueds Garcetti. Much of that may depend on whether they want to go with someone like Councilwoman Gruel, who is considered a more traditional candidate, versus an outsider like Garcetti. (CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT GRUEL IS LIKe in a line or two and how Garcetti is diff.)
"Ultimately voters will have to decide whether an insider or an outsider would be the best choice for the city," said Dr. Shirley Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy who has remained neutral in the race. "On occasion when voters have felt so totally frustrated, they could move to an outsider."
Garcetti remains locked in a close race with his rival and fellow "insider" Greuel, but both are running in a crowded field of candidates. If no candidate wins a majority of votes in the March 5 primary, the two candidates with the most votes will face each other in a runoff election in May. Garcetti is looking to the city's Latino voters, who could make up a quarter or more of the electorate, to help him avoid such a scenario and win.
To do that, he has stressed his Latino roots. Garcetti's father, former Los Angeles County district attorney Gil Garcetti, is of Mexican-American descent and the mayoral candidate speaks Spanish quite well. Garcetti faced competition for Latino voters from dark-horse candidate Emanuel Pleitez and others, but the councilman was the only candidate to air television ads in Spanish.
Garcetti's family has strong roots in Los Angeles. His paternal grandfather was born to Italian immigrants in Mexico, and eventually moved to the immigrant enclave of Boyle Heights on the city's east side. His paternal grandmother's family also immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Garcetti is also half-Jewish. His mother, Sukey Roth, was born to Russian- and Polish-Jewish immigrant parents who also settled in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
Garcetti's diverse cultural background is representative of his reputation as a renaissance man, and it could also help him appeal to a wide swath of voters on election day.
"For me, I think the greatest gift of being Latino is being comfortable navigating borders," he said during his interview with ABC/Univision.
He has already received the endorsement of prominent Latino figures and institutions from Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión to City Councilman Ed Reyes. But Greuel has also picked up the backing of Latino figures such as Speaker of the California Assembly John Pérez and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.
But in Los Angeles local elections have often split supporters and voters along racial lines. Garcetti is no exception, and his mixed background has drawn heat.
Speaker Pérez, who endorsed Greuel, was among the first to question Garcetti's ethnicity last December.
"There isn't a Latino candidate running for mayor that I know of," he said in an interview with KPCC Radio.
After he was reminded of Garcetti's ethnic heritage, Pérez responded: "His family emigrated from Italy to Mexico for a generation and then came to the U.S. But look, if he identifies as a Latino, that's a wonderful thing for him."
Garcetti reportedly called Pérez to complain and the assembly speaker apologized, saying the comments were a misunderstanding.
Garcetti, however, says that he is proud of his ethnic background but it's not the only thing that should be important for voters. For a man of many talents, getting voters to notice more than one's background should not be too hard.