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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Former President Clinton offers practical solutions for urban problems

Former President Bill Clinton and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti discuss how cities can pay for infrastructure projects during an event for the Clinton Global Initiative at City Hall.
Former President Bill Clinton and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti discuss how cities can pay for infrastructure projects during an event for the Clinton Global Initiative at City Hall. Alice Walton/KPCC

Former President Clinton — speaking at a conference in Los Angeles on Thursday — advocated strategies for economic development as a way to overcome political tensions that threaten to stymie progress.

"The one thing that I think has the best chance of destroying this political polarization in America is grassroots public-private partnerships," said Clinton, speaking at Los Angeles City Hall as part of a day-long meeting with elected leaders from around the country on how local governments can improve and finance their infrastructure. 

"There's no question in my mind ... that everywhere in the world where political polarization is more severe, there is economic adversity. When people don't have anything to look forward to when they get up in the morning, when they think tomorrow is going to be just like yesterday, they are much more vulnerable to the siren song of identity politics."

It's the fifth time in three years that the Clinton Global Initiative has convened the conference to talk about accessing capital to finance major projects and leveraging private money for public projects. The event — before an invited audience of public officials, private investors, labor leaders and policy experts — started off with a one-on-one talk between Clinton and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The mayor acknowledged that "infrastructure" might not be the most exciting term, but it encompasses so many things Angelenos care about.

"The moment you start talking about potholes, the moment you start talking about street lights, the moment you start talking about an airport that's crumbling or a port that's not modern, people get it," Garcetti said. 

What was not talked about at the event was the city of Los Angeles' proposed half-cent sales tax that would pay to fix failing streets and sidewalks. Last month, Garcetti told KPCC he would not support the tax increase unless he knew it would be approved by voters. The city currently has a policy to not fix its worst streets because of the expense. 

The mayor told the crowd that he first met Clinton in 1993. At the time, Garcetti was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and he penned a letter to the president, asking him to take action in the Balkans. Garcetti gave the letter to Clinton when he visited the university. Later, the president remembered the college student who wrote "a really nice letter."

"To have a conversation with Bill Clinton is to go on a trip around the world in 10 minutes," Garcetti said. 

The former president was in town a year ago to endorse Wendy Greuel in her race for mayor against Garcetti. In part that reflected Garcetti's early support of President Barack Obama in his 2008 election against Hillary Clinton. Maybe all that was in the back of Clinton's mind when he made this slip of the tongue: 

"As you pointed out when I was here, when you were about to become president ... mayor," Clinton said. As the audience laughed, he added: "You may become president, too, one day."

Following the one-on-one, Clinton moderated a panel with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, California Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. 

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