Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

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Los Angeles’ first-term mayor looks ahead to this year’s State of the Union address and the possibilities for designated “Promise Zones.”

In 2013, Eric Garcetti became the youngest mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century. He previously served on the city council, where he was elected four times as president and authored two of the largest municipal green building ordinances in the U.S. In national politics, he was one of six state co-chairs for President Obama's campaign and a frequent campaign surrogate (in English and Spanish). He also serves on the national climate-change task force. Garcetti studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and the London School of Economics and taught public policy, diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and the University of Southern California.


Tavis: President Obama’s set to deliver his State of the Union speech tomorrow night, of course, which his team says will include putting the rising incidence of income inequality and poverty in America front and center.

The White House has also designed three cities to date – L.A., Philadelphia, and San Antonio, as well as southeast Kentucky and the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma – as Promise Zones, guaranteeing that significant federal funding intended to alleviate income inequality and poverty will be forthcoming.

Joining us now in the L.A. studio of this program is our mayor, Eric Garcetti. Mayor Garcetti, good to have you on this program.

Mayor Eric Garcetti: Thank you. Great to be with you.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. Let me jump right in. It was said many, many years ago, as you know, that all politics is local.

So after the president gives his speech tomorrow night, eventually what really matters is how this stuff trickles down to cities. What are you expecting?

Garcetti: Well, I’m expecting some good words about the power of the presidency. Being a mayor now, as an executive, you don’t always have to wait for others to take action.

But also looking at him to look to not just Washington, D.C. for answers, but to find them in our cities, to find them in our states, to find them in places that used to come to D.C. to be saved.

Well, I think it’s incumbent upon the cities of America to come to save D.C. now. It’s the opposite. For us, we’ve seen a recovery, but not a recovery for all. I think it’s a personal thing for this president.

I was there when he announced the Promise Zones, I heard the passion. I’ve heard him speak probably a thousand times. It had to be one of the one or two best speeches I’ve heard him say, when he talked about a young man behind him who was just like him, from Harlem, and the pathways that they had towards success were because people believed in them and gave them the services to succeed, and the rest you have to do on your own.

Tavis: In this chair not long ago sat Ben Barber, a political theorist who wrote a book –

Garcetti: Yes.

Tavis: – I’m sure you’ve read, called “If Mayors Ruled the World.”

Garcetti: I love it. It’s a great title, don’t you think?

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I know you do, as mayor; “If Mayors Ruled the World.” But that’s the point you made a moment ago, that it is now perhaps time for cities to help save the state – the state of our nation, that is.

Garcetti: That’s right.

Tavis: So how do cities go about doing that?

Garcetti: Well look at us here in Los Angeles, and we’re just one example. We’re building infrastructure, so transportation, the largest light rail lines and busways in the country are coming here in Los Angeles.

We just broke ground in Crenshaw to have a new line that would take us to our airport and through south Los Angeles. Those become catalysts for economic development, for jobs.

We’re not waiting for Washington, whether it’s our Los Angeles River, which we’re revitalizing, or job training – 10,000 youth jobs that I want to provide as those pathways to the middle class this summer.

We can’t go hat-in-hand anymore to D.C. with an empty hat. We might come with a two-thirds or three-quarters filled hat, say we want D.C.’s partnership. But if we are sitting around waiting for this Congress together with Washington to do anything, I think you’re going to be waiting for a long time.

Tavis: What’s your sense of, in this moment, in this era, how progressive cities are going to be in their leadership and in their public policy? I ask that because Bill de Blasio in New York is getting all kind of ink, as you expect.

He’s in New York, the center of the media universe, so he gets a lot of ink these days about what people hope, I think, and they expected when they voted for him, would be a progressive agenda.

Here we are out here on the West Coast with our new young mayor, Eric Garcetti. People are hoping that your policies are going to be more progressive than some of your predecessors’.

I’m just trying to get a sense from you of what you think this moment holds. How pregnant is this moment with promise for progressive politics and policies?

Garcetti: This is a very ripe moment. I came together with the president, we gathered 16 mayors who were elected last year in December.

Tavis: I saw you and De Blasio sitting next to each other –

Garcetti: That’s right.

Tavis: – across from the president.

Garcetti: I’ve known Bill for many years, from when we were both council members, whether it’s him or Marty Walsh in Boston, whether it’s looking at the new mayors in Pittsburgh and in Minneapolis and in Seattle and Chattanooga.

We really have a sense of camaraderie that the progressive work that we’re going to do in this country isn’t going to come out of a distant place; it has to come out of our backyards.

Whether it’s reducing gang crime, whether it’s youth investment, whether it’s infrastructure, whether it’s trying to do environmental breakthroughs or international and global trade.

I’m the mayor of a town that has the largest port in the country. It has the number one airport in the world for flights that begin and end there, and the largest municipal utility.

So when we talk about things like global climate change, that’s not going to come out of the national capitol, that’s going to come out of here in Los Angeles, and I think if all of us can share our best practices across these different great cities in America, I think our best days are still ahead of us here in America. But it will come from the grass roots outward, not from Washington down.

Tavis: How do you do that, though, when the federal government has made it abundantly clear, at least in this moment, in this era, that states ought not be looking to the federal government for funding, and states are basically saying to cities don’t look to us for funding.

Here in California, of course, Governor Brown just gave a big speech at the beginning of the year. He’s taken a few bows for helping turn around the California economy.

But writ large across the nation, cities are not getting what they once used to get from states and from the federal government. So how do you do this without that revenue forthcoming?

Garcetti: Well, you have to be creative. You have to be an entrepreneur. You have to go out there and hustle, whether it’s with businesses, saying for the 10,000 youth that I want to hire this summer.

I’ve had CEOs; every single time I ask them, say, “Of course we’d love to hire five, 10, 20 youth.” But you have to put it together yourself, and you also have to look to your own municipality.

We’ve been taxing ourselves. We’ve been voting on these things with two-thirds majorities, because people are sick and tired of seeing an America that isn’t competitive, of seeing a nation that won’t reach those ladders of opportunity down to our neediest neighbors.

So I think the American heart is still good, I think the American soul is still strong, I think the American mind is still sharp. What we have to do is make sure that the laboratories – our cities – do it on their own. Because D.C., this was the least-effective Congress we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

I don’t think it’s going to get much better very soon, when people turn on cable channels and it’s all about killing each other instead of actually going out there and solving the people’s business.

Tavis: But isn’t that, Mayor Garcetti, part of the rub? If this is a do-nothing Congress, then no matter what the president says in his State of the Union speech tomorrow night, what ultimately happens if the president’s saying one thing and Congress is not inclined to do much of anything?

Garcetti: Well, the president has a pen, the president has a phone, and the president has executive power. Sure, with Congress he could do even more, but he has still a very powerful position.

I learned that myself. As a legislator for many years I had to introduce a motion, wait for it to go through committee, two or three years later I might have a new law. Now as mayor I pick up the phone and I tell somebody, “Just do it.”

If they haven’t done it the next day, I say, “Why not?” So the president has that executive power to lead a nation. His approval ratings aren’t at his highest, but they’re still probably four times higher than Congress.

So he has to bring that case to the people, and I think one of the other things we’ll see is a sense of optimism again, because we’ve been so down for four or five years. This president must lead with the optimism that has defined this country.

Tavis: So to your point now, there are two issues that you raise that have been in the zeitgeist of political discourse of late. One of them is this notion of optimism.

In the piece that David Remnick and I – David and I were guests on “This Week on ABC” I guess a week or so together, the day before this “New Yorker” piece came out, so we were discussing it in advance of its release on George’s program.

Part of what has happened since that piece in the New Yorker, this profile of the president, has come out, is that people are a little bit shaken by the fact that he didn’t sound so optimistic in this article.

If he was doing anything, he was dialing back the power that the presidency really has. So let’s talk first about whether or not he is as optimistic at this point as he needs to be.

Garcetti: Sure. Well, I think when you go – he’s always been a realist, and sometimes he hasn’t always given me the speech that I want, but he’s given me the speech that I need.

When I’ve looked for the soaring rhetoric at the inaugural speech, for instance, he said, “Look, this is the work that we have to get done.” But I do know at those important moments he’s been able to pull out speeches that move this nation, and I saw that when we did the Promise Zones announcement.

We had Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, because Kentucky, as you said, was one of the areas that was chosen, right next to myself and the mayor of Philadelphia.

Those folks together all listened to this man talk about the personal experience from his heart of who he is, and I think if he brings that, it’s not optimism that’s rah-rah cheerleader optimism.

It’s about getting the work done and saying look, we don’t have to divide ourselves and think that the best days are behind us. We know they’re ahead.

Tavis: The other critique of this president is that he has not used those three tools that you said are available to him. The critique from day one, as you know, in Washington and beyond, that he has not used those tools well – the phone, the pen, the executive privilege, executive authority.

Your thoughts about why he has not, at this point, used that as much as he might or ought, and whether or not, or why, in fact, you think he’s going to for the remainder of this second term.

Garcetti: I can only talk about my experience, but as a mayor I’ve never seen a gathering like what he put together in December, and that came from a meeting I had in October, when he turned to staff and said, “We need to be doing more things with mayors.”

He didn’t give us 15 minutes and a drop-by. He gave us an hour and a half with the mayor of Pittsburgh and the mayor of Chattanooga and the mayor of Jersey City and the mayor of Los Angeles and New York.

Each talked about what it feels like in their city right now, and that office and he have kept in touch about these issues. So I think – I can’t speak to the past and I can only speak to my experience.

I think he understands that clock is ticking. He has a sense of urgency about inequality in our country and promoting the middle class, and I hope this will be a pivot point for the last three years of his presidency, to get that stuff done.

Tavis: When the word got out that you were going to be a guest on our program tonight, I started getting calls from the community. As you know, I just don’t do a talk show here.

Garcetti: Sure.

Tavis: I’m a business owner, an entrepreneur. My business is on Crenshaw Boulevard, as you know, right in south L.A. So because I live and work and own in that neighborhood, everybody started calling me, saying, “Make sure you ask the mayor about these Promise Zones.”

Garcetti: Yes.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.

Garcetti: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: There’s been great talk of late in the African American community that the way this was done, and this is obviously prior to your watch, so I’m not trying to –

Garcetti: Sure.

Tavis: – put you on the spot here, but I am asking what you say to those persons who live in the neediest neighborhoods in this city, those Black and Brown neighborhoods, many of whom were left out of this particular Promise Zone.

So I’m glad for the folk who got the money, but what do you say to the Black folk in L.A., what do you say to the Brown folk in L.A. who live in these needy neighborhoods who were left out of this Promise Zone money?

Garcetti: Yeah. Well for me, there are initiatives that we have across this city. The Crenshaw line that I mentioned is in South L.A. and people in the Valley who are in high-poverty areas, saying when’s our line coming?

I launched a summer youth jobs program in the Watts area, and somebody in a different part of south L.A. says, “Why not us?”

Tavis: That’s why you’re mayor and I’m a talk show host.

Garcetti: Right. For me, this Promise Zone will be great for all of L.A., because what it does, there’s no money that comes with it. Promise Zones give us additional points when we apply for federal money, and you can include in each of those grants areas outside the Promise Zone.

As you said, before I got there, that area hadn’t been designated for a qualifying grant, so we couldn’t apply, even if I had wanted to. But I am darn determined to make sure that some of the monies that will come from that will go to other parts of the city too that connect in with that, including south L.A., the east side, and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Tavis: Just so I understand this and so this is not replicated across the country, how does an area as needy as South Central – and people across the country have heard about South Central L.A. and we all know about East L.A. How do areas like that not qualify to be in a Promise Zone?

Garcetti: This was just a technical thing that the White House and the administration said that we had to have a previous planning grant in an area before you could apply for the Promise Zone for the first round.

Now in the second or third I think they might change those rules and we’ll be able to apply for other ones. But my main point is you don’t just apply for the grants for one part of town.

Tavis: Right.

Garcetti: You can apply for multiple pieces. The designation was one place, but then this will no doubt bring money to south L.A., to East L.A., and also to the San Fernando Valley.

Tavis: Your comment now raises the next question, which is what really does it matter, with all respect to the White House, if the Promise Zones promise you everything but money?

Garcetti: No, the most important thing – and you’re right; the question you asked, when there’s no new money in D.C. What’s smart about the Promise Zones is for the first time it layers different things.

If a young person drops out of high school, it may be a combination of an unsafe neighborhood, bad public transportation, a bad school, no after-school programs, no healthcare.

For the first time it combines existing federal programs and says instead of putting them in a shotgun approach in multiple places, let’s concentrate it, just like the Harlem children’s zone did, and see if we can’t get pathways out of poverty through that.

The first grant that we’re applying for, for instance, is going to go to two high schools in the Promise Zone, two high schools in south L.A. We’re optimistic that it’ll come through, but it will look at wrap-around services so that that young person that we know who today might drop out of school because of a whole bunch of issues that he or she faces will finally have a chance to get back into school, graduate, get a career, go to college.

To me, that’s what’s different in this. In a time of no new dollars, they’re finally getting smart about how they spend them.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question, back to what we said earlier in this conversation. Because New York is the media capital of the world and because De Blasio’s a new mayor there and because expectations have been raised so high, this has become not just a New York conversation, but obviously a national conversation about where cities are headed and whether or not public policy will be more progressive and respond to the needs of everyday people who are suffering from this growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.

So De Blasio has had the platform to let the nation know what he ought to be judged on and what the voters of New York ought to look for four years from now. So I close by asking you, how do you want us to judge you here in Los Angeles in four years?

Garcetti: Well in four years I want to see Los Angeles be the great global gateway that provides opportunity internally, and that the world looks to as the best platform to bring jobs, to bring business, and to bring international trade, culture, and commerce.

Los Angeles used to be there. You remember 1984, the world looked to us, and that sense of pride we had about ourselves was we would knock down any barrier to make sure that something new was tested here first.

I want to bring a Silicon South to south L.A., where we bring STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math education – to our high schools there so that programmers emerge, not just in the wealthy areas of our country but in our poorest neighborhoods.

I want to see a great public transportation infrastructure that gets people to their jobs and doesn’t get them stuck in traffic. Most of all, I want to make sure that we reduce unemployment in this city, and that the long-term unemployed, those 40 percent of the people that are out of work today.

They’ve been out of work for more than a year, whether they’re coming back from being in prison, whether they’re veterans coming home from war, or whether they’re a youth graduating for the first time, that they finally see a pathway to a job, a career, and the middle class.

Tavis: All politics are local, and we are delighted to have on this program tonight for the first time, but not the last, the relatively new mayor of the city of L.A., so again, I expect to see him here a few more times over the next four years, our friend Eric Garcetti. Mayor Garcetti, good to have you on.

Garcetti: Thank you.

Tavis: All the best to you, sir.

Garcetti: Good to be with you. Appreciate it, Tavis.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: February 17, 2014 at 2:12 am