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L.A.'s Mayor on Trump, the Irony of Urban Politics and 'Un-American' Ideas

Eric Garcetti has big plans for Los Angeles, and he's not letting the new administration get in the way.

(Photo by David Kidd)
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is pushing an ambitious agenda that includes courting the 2024 Olympic Games, curbing air pollution, fighting homelessness, massively expanding its light rail system, reinventing the city’s overcrowded airport and integrating technology into city planning.

Much of his liberal vision will almost certainly be at odds with plans from Washington, where President-elect Donald Trump and Republican majorities in Congress will likely push for cutting regulations and federal spending.

But so far, Garcetti seems undeterred by the coming changes in the federal government. Since November, he has emphasized what mayors, and the cities they lead, can do on their own to address major issues.

The mayor spoke with Governing in two interviews (once before the election; once after) about his leadership approach, the challenges posed by the federal government and many of his top policy priorities. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve talked with President-elect Trump several times since the election. How responsive do you think he will be to cities’ needs?

So far, he’s been very accessible, and he understands cities. But success won’t be judged by how quickly you can talk to somebody. It’s whether you can work together to produce results and whether your program furthers our economy, makes our streets safer, invests in our infrastructure -- or whether his policies endanger that.

Are you afraid cities will have to go it alone under the Trump administration?

We’ve had to already. Cities have increasingly had to go on our own for the last few decades. Ironically, at the time that people are coming back to cities, the federal government has been steadily withdrawing from them. In the '60s and '70s, as people were fleeing cities, the federal government engaged with them. Now that people are going back to them, through Democratic and Republican administrations, the federal government has withdrawn from cities.

I told President Obama when the Class of 2013 met with him, “If this was in the '60s or '70s, we’d be coming to Washington asking for Washington to save American cities.” I said, “With all due respect, Washington is seen as a lot more broken now. I hope American cities can come here to save Washington.” I don’t think that has changed.

Are you afraid that Los Angeles will lose federal funding under the Trump administration, given the city’s support of measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and its status as a sanctuary city for immigrants?

I encourage the president-elect to use the best business practices he knows. Wouldn’t you like to have $1 of federal money generate $2 or $3? We had a very good conversation about the importance of investing in urban infrastructure to have a better quality of life and produce jobs. We may add the benefit to the environment to that and may point that out to him. But I’m not worried that this is an area he doesn’t care about. He’s said it throughout the campaign and, in many ways, I think this is where he wants to lay down his legacy. 

You know, we are a donor state. Los Angeles and California subsidize projects throughout the country. We help rural Americans get roads and Internet access. We subsidize states in the South with job training dollars to help their economies out. We only get 72 cents back for every dollar we give. The idea of taking more of that away would just be unfair and un-American.

Since the election, California in general and Los Angeles in particular have been viewed as a major center of resistance to the incoming Trump administration. How much of a divide is there between what’s going on in Los Angeles and what’s going on in the rest of the country?

I’ve never believed that American cities, especially on the coasts, are somehow different than the heartland. Los Angeles is a Rust Belt city that has lost more manufacturing than anyplace else and still has more manufacturing than any other place in America. We know what that feels like when car factories close up. That didn’t just happen in the last 10 years, that happened in the last 20 years for us.

Increasingly, I think, we know how to put America back on track. We showed that with the vote on Measure M [a 2016 ballot measure that imposed a transportation tax]. We’re showing that with innovation from SpaceX to Snapchat to advanced manufacturing. Whether it’s the goods that come through our ports or the investors and tourists that arrive through our airports, we are a gateway city to America and to its innovation. When L.A. prospers and American cities prosper, our country prospers.

At a time when new federal transportation money has been hard to find, Los Angeles County residents voted overwhelmingly in 2008 and again in 2016 to raise their local sales tax to expand light rail, improve bus service and expand highway. Why have they been so willing to do that

Angelenos are in a mood to invest and, like most Americans, they’re frustrated by Washington’s inability to lead. That said, Washington has been a very good partner with us and has co-invested. It used to be that, for infrastructure projects, you’d go to the federal government and they’d pay 100 percent of it. You’re lucky if you get 50 percent now. But as long as you can go to the voters, go to the passengers, go to the customers at the airport to make your case, we’re finding the money. It’s not as easy as it once was, but it’s doable.

That model of stepping up local funds first, or being innovative and bringing in the private sector, and then going to state and federal sources, I think is the model of how we’re going to do infrastructure.

You previously talked with Governing about your back-to-basics vision of making Los Angeles the “best-run city in America.” How do big-ticket items like airport expansions fit in with that approach?

People don’t expect mayors to be presidents or doing huge policy initiatives. They expect mayors to run a city well. For L.A., that airport is about economic development, visitors and people coming home. If you can get those three initiatives done well, people feel like, "This city government cares about me. This city government wants me to invest here. The city government welcomes me."

In the last year, we’ve had more jobs, more residents, more visitors, more students than ever in our history. That’s the product I sell, and they’re all at new peaks.

How do infrastructure improvements, like a transit connection to the airport, help Los Angeles’ Olympic bid and its reputation internationally?

This is an Olympics town. It is in our DNA. We don’t build things because of the Olympics only and hope the people benefit. We build things for the people and know the Olympics will benefit. But we love the fact that those things are connected, whether that’s our public transportation system that we’re building out or the airport. Everybody loves a deadline, and it helps me push funds, focus and finalize these projects.

That said, we have people coming through all the time who are Olympic officials or athletes. We have more Olympic athletes, I think, in Southern California than anywhere in the world. So we want that to be part of our character anyway. It happens to be well-timed for our bid for 2024.

L.A. is becoming one of the three or four great hubs of the world, together with the Londons and the Tokyos and the Dubais and the New Yorks. L.A. is this place that is arguably the northern capital of Latin America, the western capital of the United States and the eastern capital of the Pacific.

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