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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Eric Garcetti: L.A.'s Answer To Bill Clinton

Hillel Aron |
December 5, 2009 | 3:23 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

Photo by Hillel Aron
Much like Bill Clinton in his prime, City Council President Eric Garcetti is young, quick, charming, and was a Rhodes Scholar. More than any other local politician, he has all the specs for a career in national politics.

I sat down with Eric Garcetti in his district office on Hollywood and Western, on the top floor of a half vacant, historic building. The office looks like it could be someone's apartment, with hardwood floors and strangely, wicker furniture in the lobby. Garcetti's office itself is gigantic, more than enough room for his mountain bike and a sit down Ms. Pac Man / Galaga arcade table.

You know I talked to Tom LeBonge...
Yeah I heard, I can answer the hipster question right out. I mean, not even close. CD 13 is hipster central. Silver Lake, Echo Park, Atwater Village... 
Are you a hipster?
No but I represent them proudly.
I live in Echo Park, as do you. Why can't we get a decent diner?
Well for me, I'm half Mexican, half Jewish, to me a good diner is represented by Rodeo Grill. It's not an American diner, but they've got great huevos rancheros. I don't know, it's tough to run a good diner. We're more of a coffee house place.
You went to the London School of Economics. Where do you think the economy is going?
I think it's gonna be a long crawl back. I think there's gonna be some good things that happen with the overall economy, but for the average resident, it's gonna be a really slow -- I wouldn't say jobless recovery, but the jobs are gonna lag far behind.
For how long?
I would say for at least a couple years. As a city, next fiscal year, we're gonna have less money than we did this year. And this year was one of the biggest deficits we've ever faced, about $400 million. Official unemployment stats for LA County are 14 percent. But if you look at people in the soft labor stats, people who are still looking for work but can't get unemployment benefits anymore, and people who are grossly underemployed, so 10 hours a week or whatever, who are looking for full-time work, it's one out of four people right now who are out of work. 
If the budget shortfall is gonna be more next year, what's city council gonna do?
It's gonna be really rough. It means massive cuts, downsizing of government. We're going to experience our basic core programs- parks, libraries, street paving - those are all gonna be shaved. It's time to focus on what we do most importantly. And to me that's public safety and public works. There's a ton of other stuff that I'd like to do, but in bad economic times, we have to do what business does, what households do. We have to prioritize.
Los Angeles has lagged behind other cities in federal stimulus money, why is that?
We haven't, I mean I read the Neon Tommy piece on the transportation folks. LA was looked at as a city, as opposed to the MTA. So transportation dollars were accounted for in New York City, because they have their own department of transportation. 
So why has the MTA lagged behind in stimulus?
I don't know. I think part of it was based on what projects were ready. What I've asked is, was this anything with our application? Did we miss deadlines? Were they bad applications? On the smart grid stuff, when the first round came out, it was $300 million, we got zero. Anaheim got some, Burbank got some. And I said, why is this? It would be easy to say, oh Washington screwed us over. Then a couple people came forward and they showed me a port of LA electric truck application, where the word 'recovery' was misspelled on the front page. When the second round came, we got 60 million, which was the biggest chunk in the entire country.
Is that really the metrics they use, how good your spelling is?
Well, I assume it helps to separate who's putting together a good application or not. The speed with which all this stuff came down - because they wanted to spend this stuff quickly, but these are complicated programs. A lot of cities rushed. And those who were already thinking in different areas before the economic recovery package was put together were just better positioned. It's like us with the high speed rail. We've got $10 billion, we got a rail authority here, we're way ahead of say, Texas. And then, sometimes, it's incompetence. 
You campaigned for Obama.
Yes I did.
A lot of liberals are disappointed. Are you?
No, I'm not disappointed. I understand folks' impatience. But if you think where were a year ago, we, as liberals, were just trying to stop bad things from happening. As opposed to now, where we're trying to get health care passed, fair wages for women, getting rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell, things like that. We would have a very short-lived success if we tried to do everything at once. I think it's very important to try to focus on the big things right now.
You joined the Naval Reserves in the intelligence division? Does that mean you're a spy?
Uh, no. I'm an intelligence officer. I mean, there are spies that are part of the intelligence community. But my work is supporting the pacific fleet, and helping them do training exercises for their ships as they get ready for deployment. 
And you still do that?
A weekend once a month in San Diego, and then two weeks a year on top of that. 
You're on record saying you support mandatory national service. 
Yeah. There's very little asked of us, collectively as a people. And there's very little that glues us together as Americans anymore. We're really good at saying what we're against, and what divides us. I think having some sort of national service, even a short period of three months before people go to college, or take a year to do it and we'll pay some of your tuition, is really something that will bring us together. Teachers, community workers, peace corps, military, it could be a whole range of different things.
You're term-limited.
So I hear.
What's next?
I have two or three pathways. One would be to look at mayor in 2013. I term out then, and the mayor terms out then. Another would be to serve at a national level in the administration, or in the human rights world, something non-profit. Pursue my music, which is something I hope to do professionally again. The third would be looking at Congress, or a way to get to the US Senate. I don't know what that path would be. I have about 18 months where I don't have to think about it too hard.
You're not leaning one way or another?
I'd love to stay in LA. I feel like I know how things work and don't work in LA. Some of things we've been able to do in individual neighborhoods like Hollywood, and Silver Lake, I think are great templates for what we could do in other parts of the city. I think I can probably have a greater impact staying here and doing stuff here, but eventually I'd like to return to national and international work. 
So can we put you down as leaning Mayor?
Leaning toward staying local, yeah.
You mentioned your music, is it true you wrote a musical?
I've written a few of them.
Can you sing a song for us from your musical?

Like a day of LA weather
It's the way you've always known
And you spend the night together
But you somehow wake alone.

What's that song called?
The Morning After.
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