Rhodes Scholar, Italian, Mexican, Jew: Meet Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s New Mayor
The 42-year-old son of the city’s former D.A. emerges as a tailor-made fit for the polyglot metropolis
Eric Garcetti, the new-ish mayor of Los Angeles, is on the line, and I ask him: Six months in City Hall, how’s the new job? “Like an off-the-rack suit that fits perfectly,” Garcetti responds—a metaphor that perfectly befits the scion of Louis Roth & Co., one of the city’s oldest haberdashers.
Garcetti isn’t the city’s first Jewish mayor—that honor goes to a businessman named Bernard Cohn who served for two weeks as an appointed interim mayor in 1878—but he is the first to win election, and by nearly 10 points over his rival Wendy Gruel, a fellow Democrat. The son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti—best known for overseeing the prosecution of O.J. Simpson—Eric Garcetti is a product of his city: a Rhodes Scholar and fluent Spanish-speaker, he’s half-Italian and half-Mexican on his father’s side and descended from Labor Zionist shmatte moguls on his mother’s.
Garcetti is a little like a walking, talking version of the local specialty known as the Kosher Burrito: pastrami wrapped in a tortilla. Indeed, he’s proud of it: “That’s me!” he exclaimed when I made the analogy to him, back when he was just another city councilman campaigning for L.A.’s top job. Being Jewish may not help the mayor of a city of 3.8 million that is home to the most Koreans outside of Seoul, the most Iranians outside of Tehran, the most Guatemalans outside of Guatemala, and the most Samoans outside of Samoa, among myriad diasporas. “But it doesn’t hurt,” observed Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He’s in Fiorello LaGuardia mode.”
But as a politician, Garcetti is less about being all things to all people than about being his own, somewhat irreverent, self: As head of a city where walking various red carpets is a routine task, he’s known as an expert photo-bomber who has played onstage with Moby and regularly posts to Instagram.
Garcetti faces daunting challenges: a projected $242 million budget shortfall, union pay hike demands, rising homelessness, ever-worsening traffic. Oh, and there’s also the 8,000-year-old earthquake fault that runs beneath a major Hollywood residential/retail complex now under construction—a little problem city officials reportedly overlooked.
But for now, he’s still enjoying his post-election honeymoon. Like any new officeholder, he’s spent the last six months clearing the municipal decks, launching a new website that displays City Hall performance metrics, and engaging in a quick skirmish with the Water and Power union. This month, he’s been all over town doing holiday duty: switching on the Christmas tree at the Grove shopping mall, circling the menorah on the City Hall steps arm-in-arm with hora-dancing Chabad rabbis, lighting another one sponsored by the L.A. federation in the City Hall rotunda. He happily sang along as Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue, strummed a guitar for a holiday singalong. “Singing ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ in Ladino captures everything about me,” Garcetti told me. “Everyone can claim a piece of me.”
When Garcetti was elected, he and his wife Amy Wakeland—a fellow Rhodes Scholar—decided to move with their toddler daughter Maya from their $1.4 million home in the hip Silver Lake neighborhood to Getty House, the city’s official mayoral residence in Hancock Park. One of the first things they did was invite their rabbi, Sharon Brous, the head of L.A.’s progressive IKAR congregation, to bless the first mezuzah ever to grace the doorframe of the Tudor-style mansion, which was built in 1921. Since then, Brous has paid twice-monthly visits to Garcetti’s office to study Talmud. “Every decision he makes is driven by deep thoughtfulness and grounded in his core values,” Brous told me. “In our learning we are exploring Jewish texts and ideas that could offer wisdom and context to some of the very challenging decisions he has to make every day.”
At a reception the city’s Jewish federation held for the new mayor last August, Brous told him in front of the crowd, “We are here to help you, and to utz you.” So, while Garcetti may not be a regular at IKAR’s Shabbat services, the learning sessions guarantee Brous a regular opportunity to push him. “I do like to utz people, generally speaking,” she acknowledged.
His top priority at the moment is one that has animated Jewish social-justice activists across the country: immigration reform. Exit polls showed Garcetti captured nearly 60 percent of the Latino vote, and he says that passage of reform legislation, which has stalled repeatedly in the past decade, is not only critical to his city’s economic health, but also to its social wellbeing. “Immigration reform touches the core of Jewish values,” Garcetti told me. He hopes to leverage the increasing urgency of the situation in California to provoke action in Washington, and he met with other newly elected mayors during a recent White House visit to plot a 2014 strategy to get the legislation passed.
Garcetti’s own family history speaks to the story of American immigration. On his mother’s side, his forebears were Russian Jews who made their way to the United States, while his father’s ancestors were Italians who made their way to Mexico in the 19th century to escape turmoil in their country and in turn fled northward once their adopted homeland was seized by revolución a century ago. Both families, Catholic and Jewish, wound up practically neighbors in the melting pot of East L.A.’s Boyle Heights. Though he grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburbs, Eric ate menudo Sunday mornings at one grandparents’ home and chicken soup at the home of his other grandparents.
But Garcetti never campaigned as a Jewish politician, prompting one writer to snark, “The day after Los Angeles voters elected Eric Garcetti mayor of Los Angeles, something astonishing happened: He became Jewish.” Yet those who know him say that’s not entirely fair. “Eric has been engaged and involved for a long time,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Of course, he’s now in charge of the second-largest concentration of Jews in the country, after New York—a population larger than Jerusalem’s. In his first few months, he’s been feted by the federation and also met with Israel’s Consul General David Siegel, who wanted to offer technological assistance for addressing Southern California’s water shortages. “Eric is more open about his Jewish roots in public,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor who officiated at Garcetti’s wedding. “He’s more in touch now than ever before.”
Many expected Yaroslavsky, who for 30 years has been the most prominent Jewish politician in Los Angeles, to be the first Jew elected to run the city, but instead the 64-year-old—who has announced he’s retiring next year—has become a mentor to Garcetti, advising him during the campaign and now in his first months at City Hall. And while Garcetti may have won nearly 58 percent of the city’s Jewish vote over Wendy Greuel—who was campaigning to become the city’s first female mayor—Yaroslavsky says his protégé has his work cut out for him. “Jews in this city are going to judge him not by how Jewish he is,” he said, “but by how many potholes he gets fixed.”
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Responding to pressure from the progressive ‘Open Hillel’ movement will engage those who want to hear a multiplicity of views