At a time when national politics appears to be hamstrung by partisan bickering and gridlock, American cities are leading the way in meaningful public policy on many issues. And Los Angeles, the second-largest US city, is at the forefront of that movement, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Speaking at a McCloskey Speaker Series event in Aspen, CO, Garcetti, who was re-elected to a second term in 2017 with 81 percent of the vote, noted that the Greek polis is the same root word for both politics and city (metropolis).
“At a moment when people are feeling helpless and hopeless, the city runs against a lot of those negative feelings; it’s a place to quench our thirst and breathe hope back into democracy,” said Garcetti, a fourth-generation Angeleno.
He told the story of hosting a dinner for 25 mayors, during which two attendees who found themselves on the same page on the typically thorny issues of immigration and climate change found out at the end of the evening that one was a Republican and the other a Democrat.
“It shows that there’s still a space and a place to address problems together and not start with, ‘Tell me who you are in terms of your affiliation, before I get to know who you are as a person,’” said Garcetti. He went on to say that it was during his university days in Harlem that he realized that human interaction — above everything else — “should drive 100 percent of the foundation of our politics.”
Garcetti, a Democrat, noted that Republicans supported some of his administration’s most notable achievements, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020 and a landmark $120 billion transportation infrastructure plan that emphasizes public transit. LA’s infrastructure measure, funded by a sales tax, was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2016, he noted, on the same night American cities passed a total of $230 billion worth of infrastructure measures. Meanwhile, at the national level, not much has been achieved on one of the few issues to have some bipartisan agreement.
A big believer in the role of infrastructure — which also including affordable housing and connecting people to jobs — in supporting social mobility and the American Dream, Garcetti also touts the power of community colleges, which he calls “engines of opportunity” in terms of providing a pathway to four-year institutions or to jobs that pay middle-class wages. One of the things he is most proud of is fulfilling a campaign promise to make community college free for LA students — a policy that he also has a personal passion for as the foster father of a son who found his calling through a community college culinary arts program.
Community colleges also have a role to play in maintaining inner cities’ diversity as economic opportunity grows. “As we go denser, I don’t want to just attract great talent, I want to grow it in our community colleges,” Garcetti said.
Garcetti is also taking on tough national — and international — issues. The day that President Trump announced the US pullout from the Paris Climate Agreement, he said, “instead of crying in a corner, I started calling cities and saying, ‘He says he’s out, let’s say we’re in.’” The result, the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, represents over 400 US cities and 70 million Americans in its commitment to uphold the goals of the Paris agreement. Garcetti noted that since policies on building codes, transportation systems, and electricity generation are the providence of cities, “I think that’s the most necessary and best platform in the world.”
Previously, Los Angeles hosted the first meeting between mayors of US and Chinese cities — which represent 25 percent of all global emissions — at which the biggest agreement on climate action prior to Paris was signed. “Cities are where the action’s going to be no matter what; we are the places that can make a difference” on climate change, Garcetti said.
Garcetti, whose family background is Mexican and Jewish, is perhaps most emotional on the topic of immigration, particularly current federal policies that are “dehumanizing” immigrants. Noting that the United States is a nation of immigrants, he likened the recent federal border policy to “taking a hammer to an already broken system, smashing it further, and now looking at the pieces and trying to figure out how to repair it.”
Garcetti’s local immigration policies have included setting up a fund to provide legal services to undocumented immigrants facing deportation and declining federal requests to detain arrestees so they can be investigated and possibly deported. He took action to help reunite separated migrant families and criticized the current catch-all immigration policy, explaining that it makes Americans less safe when ICE is focused on its numbers rather than finding and apprehending the few criminals — not to mention instilling fear of any authorities.
And, noting that 61 percent of LA’s new businesses are started by immigrants, Garcetti said, “I want economic prosperity, I want family unity, and I want safe streets, and that runs through policies [in Los Angeles] that look nothing like the policies that are coming out of Congress and the White House right now.”
But, he conceded, “I realize more of my city’s fate is in the hands of what happens in the nation,” not only on immigration but on issues such as mental health and international trade policy. And although there’s much focus these days on the president and his policies, Garcetti pointedly noted, “Donald Trump is not on the ballot in 2018, but the Congress that enables him is.”