L.A. Mayor Skips 2020 Presidential Race to 'Finish the Job' at Home

by | January 30, 2019 AT 7:45 AM

By Michael Finnegan and Dakota Smith

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Tuesday that he will not run for president, declining to take a long-shot gamble that Democrats would pick a little-known local official to challenge President Trump.

After nearly two years of flirting with the idea that he could leap from City Hall to the world's most powerful job, the mild-mannered mayor reached a decision in keeping with his reputation for avoiding political risk. He also passed up a chance to run for governor last year when the odds seemed stacked against him.

At a City Hall news conference, Garcetti said he decided over the last couple of weeks to stay put as mayor because he "realized that this is what I am meant to do and this is where I want to be."

"It may be out of vogue today, but I kind of believe that whenever possible, you should finish the job that you set out to do," he said.

Garcetti's announcement came after settlement of a teachers' strike that upended the daily life of hundreds of thousands of people for more than a week. The mayor of L.A. has no authority over public education, but Garcetti took a high-profile role in facilitating contract settlement talks at City Hall.

Garcetti said the strike resolution was a "kick in the pants" that helped convince him stick around.

"What we have right here in Los Angeles sets the pace for the nation," he said, drawing a contrast with the partisan combat that blocks action in Washington.

Garcetti's decision also followed disclosure of a search warrant seeking email and other records that involve two of his appointees as part of an FBI investigation of possible bribery, extortion and money laundering at City Hall.

Authorities have not charged anyone with a crime, and no one has accused Garcetti of wrongdoing. But the mere existence of the investigation marked a serious setback for a mayor with little name recognition beyond Southern California.

Had he run for president, Garcetti and Sen. Kamala Harris of California would have been competing to raise money from many of the same donors, especially in Hollywood.

Harris has emerged as a top contender for the party nomination, but Garcetti said her well-received campaign rollout had no impact on his decision, which he finalized Tuesday morning.

Garcetti heaped praise on Harris and two of her Democratic rivals, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. He called Buttigieg a "big sleeper who is going to surprise people."

He also expressed confidence that Democrats will choose a strong nominee to challenge President Trump.

"When I looked at this, I didn't have a burning desire that I had to be president at all costs," Garcetti said. "That's not been a lifelong dream. This was a moment which I saw somebody who I felt was destroying this country."

On a personal note, Garcetti said he decided he did not want to spend long stretches of time away from the two things he loved most, his family and his hometown.

"There's some sadness about this moment, but not much," said Garcetti, whose wife, Amy Wakeland, and 7-year-old daughter Maya did not attend the event.

Still, Garcetti, who has been a leader on climate change in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, plans to keep traveling the country to advance urban causes.

"Those of you who know me well know that I love this job," he said. "It's tough, tough work."

The mayor's options for advancing to higher office are limited.

Under term limits, Garcetti, 47, must step down as mayor at the end of 2022. If newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, runs for a second term, Garcetti could effectively be blocked from seeking that job until 2026.

Another path might open for Garcetti to capture one of California's two seats in the U.S. Senate, but he faces obstacles.

If Harris falters in her campaign for president, she will be up for reelection to the Senate in 2022, and it could be tough to unseat her in a primary.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another Democrat, was reelected in November, and her term won't expire until 2024. If Feinstein, 85, leaves office early, the governor would name a successor. Other Democrats, such as Secretary of State Alex Padilla, would probably vie for that appointment too.

Historically, L.A. mayors stumble when they seek higher office. Antonio Villaraigosa, Richard Riordan and Tom Bradley each ran for governor and lost.

"There's just something about being mayor of a megalopolis that dominates a state that is a turn-off to voters elsewhere in the state," said Democratic consultant Garry South of Los Angeles, who described Garcetti as "bright, engaging and talented."

"It doesn't mean that history is determinative," South said. "But I think a mayor of L.A., no matter how good they are, just starts out with one strike against them in running for higher office."

The last mayor of Los Angeles to run for president was Sam Yorty in 1972. He failed to win a single delegate in his quest for the Democratic nomination to run against President Nixon.

The trouble that mayors face in seeking bigger jobs is not unique to Los Angeles. No mayor has ever vaulted straight to the presidency without serving in higher office.

"There's just no evidence that you can run credibly for president as a sitting mayor," South said.

Garcetti, who served 12 years on the City Council, including six as council president, won a second term as mayor in 2017 with 81% of the vote in a race with token opposition. He campaigned on raising the minimum wage, cutting business taxes and backing ballot measures to expand public transit and house the homeless.

The surge in homelessness on Garcetti's watch would have posed a huge challenge in a presidential race. Tent encampments have sprouted across freeway overpasses and underpasses and along sidewalks, alleys, beaches and river banks.

Garcetti won passage of a ballot measure to build new housing for the homeless, but it will take years for it to have any visible impact. He has also launched a program to build shelters in neighborhoods across the city.

"My work is right before me," Garcetti said on Tuesday. "Who knows what the future is?"

Times reporter Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.

(c)2019 the Los Angeles Times