In Los Angeles, political candidates sometimes try to build their street credibility by talking about witnessing gang violence firsthand . Eric Garcetti tells of coming under fire in 1993 – at an airport in northern Cambodia.
“As the plane was about to land, Khmer Rouge rebels came out of the jungle and shelled the airport,” Garcetti recalls. “Luckily, it didn’t hit the terminal, but it did hit some soldiers and killed one of them close by.”
World traveler may be an understatement for Garcetti, who says he’s visited more than 80 countries. Some of them were human rights trips: he worked in Burmese jungles promoting democracy and spent time in Ethiopia providing medical relief. On an environment-related trip to the North Pole, he found Salma Hayek’s wallet . (She is campaigning for him now).
The 43-year-old L.A. city councilman says his travel makes him “uniquely qualified” to be mayor in a city with people from all over the world. He talks easily with Thai business owners in his Hollywood council district, for example.
“They open up when they hear that I lived in Thailand,” he says.
Garcetti says his interest in human rights has its roots in his family: his paternal grandfather could not swim in a Boyle Heights public pool because he was Mexican. His maternal grandfather, who was Jewish, was an active member of the ACLU.
He grew up in Encino, and attended the private Harvard Westlake school. Half-Jewish, half-Mexican, with an Italian last name, Garcetti flew under the racial radar.
“So I would hear what people would say about Jews when they think no Jews are around. I’d hear Mexican jokes from folks who thought I wasn’t Mexican,” he says. “While it was hurtful at first, it also allowed me to navigate those frontiers, those borders, really easily.”
Garcetti’s mother provided arts programs to poor kids. His father, Gil, was a prosecutor who served two terms as L.A. County District Attorney. At times, Garcetti may appear buttoned down. He is not, says a former aide.
“I will say that I have danced with him at parties,” says former aide Josh Kamensky. He also tells of driving Garcetti around his district singing Broadway musicals.
Music is a favorite past-time of Garcetti’s. He’s a pianist and composer and even performed with the musician Moby at a recent fundraiser. He and his wife, political activist Amy Wakeland, have been foster parents.
Politicians by nature are ambitious. A childhood friend saw it early .
“For Eric, there is an unusual sense of ease with his drive. It’s just natural,” Leo Marks says.
Garcetti attended Columbia University and then became a Rhodes scholar, studying at Oxford and the London School of Economics. He holds a Masters of International Affairs. For the past dozen years, he’s represented Hollywood, Echo Park and parts of Silver Lake on the L.A. city council.
At a recent Hollywood Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Garcetti touted his work revitalizing the area. It’s been a dramatic change with new restaurants, nightclubs and the return of the Academy Awards.
“Today Hollywood is once again a place of opportunity,” he told the crowd.
But for some, that’s meant having to move out as gentrification pushed rents up.
“Low-income working people who have been there, in many cases, for generations,” says Larry Gross, who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival. He says Hollywood residents have crowded his tenants' rights clinics over the last few years as they’ve struggled to hold onto their homes. But he also praises Garcetti’s work.
“At the same time, Eric has been one of the more vocal proponents of various tenants rights and affordable housing ordinances before the city council,” Gross says.
Garcetti says he worked hard to mitigate the effects of gentrification with new affordable housing, parks and after school programs – even as he’s played a key role in bringing new developers to Hollywood. Chamber President Leron Gubler says Garcetti personally mitigated a dispute involving the W Hotel project.
“Eric interceded, brought the parties together and negotiated a settlement that was amicable to all the parties,” Gubler says. “He definitely saved that project.”
Garcetti likes to say that finding consensus is his forté. That helped him during his six years as president of the city council, according to a former colleague.
“I found him really easy to work with,” says former Councilman Greig Smith, a Republican who often differed with Garcetti, a Democrat. Smith called him “intelligent and affable.”
But his desire to “make everybody happy” was a liability too, Smith says. He recalls a dispute over a rate increase proposed by the mayor and the Department of Water and Power. Garcetti went to the DWP Board of Commissioners to negotiate a lower hike before a midnight deadline.
“When he came back at 10 o’clock at night to the council … he came back and said here’s the deal – same deal as the mayor’s,” Smith says. ‘He needed to be stronger, and it just wasn’t his style.”
Garcetti says he did push for the lower rate, if unsuccessfully. But he is aware of his bent toward consensus, and pokes fun at it as a reporter negotiates for more time with him.
“You guys, can we build some consensus here? What would make you happy?” he mockingly pleads.
The councilman says he’s a more decisive leader now.
“At the beginning you want to really listen to everybody and make everybody agree, and I am much more impatient now.”
He also says he’ll be emboldened by the office.
“When I have the power to do things as mayor," he maintains, "I’ll be strong and say this is where we are going."