There’s still a Senate confirmation ahead of Mayor Eric Garcetti before he can really leave Los Angeles.
But President Biden’s official announcement of Garcetti as his pick to be the next ambassador to India has already set off yet another Democratic political scramble in California, this time to fill a role that is at once high-profile and kind of thankless: that of a big-city mayor.
The fact that the announcement came in the midst of New York City’s bruising, confusing mayoral election raised inevitable comparisons, not just between Garcetti and New York’s outgoing mayor, Bill de Blasio, but between the two jobs.
Although New York’s mayor has considerably more power, the roles have at least one thing in common, said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles: “It’s extraordinarily difficult to leave those offices with the bands playing and the crowds cheering. If you want an easy rise in politics, run for State Assembly — don’t run for one of these offices.”
As it turns out, though, the role of Los Angeles’s mayor was shaped by New York’s. I asked Sonenshein, who also served as the executive director of a Los Angeles city commission that helped reshape the powers of the mayor’s office in 1999, about the differences. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Tell me about your initial reaction to the news that Garcetti finally got the nod.
I had been more optimistic than most that he was going to get the job, but it was clearly not a done deal. I’m pretty pleased about it.
I think it’s a good step for him, and it’s a good step for Los Angeles in some important ways.
No L.A. mayor in my recollection has gone from mayor to a national- or international-level post. The mayors of the three biggest cities never seem to go anywhere — you get very ambitious people, and their ambition is always frustrated.
It also has to do with L.A. getting more recognition in the national Democratic Party. National Democrats used to say, you go to the Bay Area for talent and you go to L.A. for money.
So what power does the mayor of Los Angeles actually have? And how does that compare with other big cities?
New York is kind of by itself, but also typical of East Coast and Midwestern cities in having a strong mayor system. It’s just that New York is extraordinarily strong.
What does that mean?
When I was working on charter reform from 1997 to 1999, I looked at New York City’s charter, and I was astonished to discover all residual powers not otherwise delegated went to the mayor in New York. That’s almost unheard-of. The mayor also runs the schools there, which is more common in the East but is really unusual out here.
The New York City Council is very large — 51 members. It’s stronger than it used to be, but it’s still hard to face up to the mayor. It’s a vertically organized government. That’s from the history of East Coast and Midwestern cities, with strong party machines.
What you have in L.A. is a government system that was designed 100 years ago to not be like New York and Chicago. It was going to be a nonpartisan reform government with dispersed authority. And it sure looks like they succeeded.
We have what I might call a moderately strong mayor. I would not use the word weak. The real challenge is that there’s a lot of power in L.A. government, but it’s divided among many institutions.
The school board is independently elected. The board of supervisors runs an immensely strong county government. You have 87 city governments, some inside the borders of the city of L.A., each of which has land-use authority.
At the same time, though, the mayor is without question the most-recognized political leader not just in the city of L.A., but in the county and in all of Southern California.
So during emergencies, during an earthquake, during the Covid crisis, it’s possible for all of those to pull together behind the mayor.
Is there anything Garcetti gets blamed for that’s actually out of his control?
Homelessness is almost perfectly designed to frustrate the authority of the mayor of Los Angeles. It’s an issue that crosses jurisdictional boundaries — the county needs the city and vice versa. It’s a long-term crisis. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to address. So do you change the whole structure in order to fix homelessness? It’s not something this dispersed government responds well to.
What about the New York City mayor?
The one thing the mayor doesn’t suffer from here that the mayor of New York does suffer from is an overhanging state government. It’s a power that the California state government either doesn’t have or chooses not to use. So in New York, if the mayor doesn’t get along with the governor — as the current mayor doesn’t — there’s conflict. You could have a press conference where the governor threatens to use the authority to suspend the mayor. The state in the past has taken over the finances of New York City. None of that would happen here.
Here’s what else to know today
This week, Shohei Ohtani will pitch and hit in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. My colleague Kurt Streeter writes that not only is the Angels standout one of the greatest spectacles in sports right now, but he also represents a powerful rebuke of anti-Asian hate.
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
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