Eric Garcetti Isn't Expecting Much From Washington

The Los Angeles mayor insists that politics is working fine at the municipal level—and talks about Trump, policing, and his favorite L.A. film.

Eric Garcetti points to a camera at the Academy Awards.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at the 89th annual Academy Awards (Mike Blake / Reuters)

There are at least two things that bother the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, about Donald Trump’s presidency.

“I am totally opposed to so much of the immorality coming out of the White House right now, but I’d like to also talk about its impracticality,” Garcetti told The Atlantic. “This is a very impractical White House. When it comes to public safety, I listen to police chiefs and cops, not to a cable-news station. When it comes to environment, we’re not engaged in ideological conversation about the merits of climate change. We’re actually dealing with the impact.”

Garcetti’s criticism of Trump comes at a time when chatter about Garcetti as a candidate in the 2020 presidential race is increasing. So is he running? The mayor now gets this question a lot from reporters, but has so far only offered artful dodges. “I don’t ever say no,” he says, “but I’m pretty darn focused on being mayor.”

In the latest episode of The Atlantic Interview, Garcetti speaks with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, about how major cities can help the country, how he is trying to insulate L.A. from the whims and scorn of what he says is a very impractical White House, and where to find the best tacos in town.

An edited and condensed transcript of their conversation is below.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Explain to me what’s happening in American politics. Why is the center not seeming to hold?

Eric Garcetti: Look, I spend most of my time with mayors. In local communities, politics actually is working pretty well. There’s a lot of progress and investment being made on the local level that the national government isn’t capable of doing. In Houston, in Florida, or in Northern California—between hurricanes and fires—people are actually dealing with the [climate-change] crisis. And I haven’t seen this sort of pace of implementation on a crisis in my lifetime. This is pretty breathtaking. People are looking at a hundred-percent renewable energy. That was a dream. We’re actually coming up with a plan to do it. That was unimaginable.

Goldberg: If I didn’t know better, I would think that you’re basically saying that America’s going to be okay.

Garcetti: Well, I do trust that America will be okay.

Goldberg: Why? Because for the first time in my life, I’m thinking this thing is spinning a little bit out of control.

Garcetti: Because America has never come from Washington out to the local communities. It’s vice versa. If this was the 1960s or ’70s, America’s cities would be coming to Washington—with people leaving cities, the cities burning, full of poverty—saying, “Washington, please save America’s cities.” Right now, it’s the opposite. America’s cities are here to say, “We can help save Washington.”

Goldberg: The 19th century was the century of empire, the 20th century was the century of the nation-state. Is this century possibly the century of the city-state? Is there a possibility that we’re moving toward another kind of system of global governance?

Garcetti: No. I think cities have always been the most important and will continue to. The nation-state isn’t going away. What we’re returning to is cities have roles to direct cross-national boundaries and come up with trade agreements, environmental accords—and the speed at which we can share information, that’s what’s different.

Goldberg: When you’re president—for the purposes of this conversation let’s just assume you’re president—what do you do to convince people in the moneyless places—in the rural parts of the country, in the Ohios of America—that they are better served, ultimately, unified with the cities?

Garcetti: You make the case that Los Angeles and Ohio are not different. We have high poverty in Los Angeles and we have the same struggles. We’ve had car factories close down. We created 20,000 green jobs in the last four years in L.A. That’s about 40 percent of all the coal jobs in America. And that can happen in Ohio and West Virginia.

Goldberg: You represented Hollywood for many years on the city council. Is something rotten happening in that industry?

Garcetti: Well there’s no question that there are gender issues in Hollywood, and this isn’t just a reflection of one bad producer. But it’s very important not to see this as a Hollywood issue. Last year, we had a report that came out about rape, in our high rises, of janitors—women who are sometimes undocumented or immigrants. This is something across all sorts of industries. The impact of this is much bigger than the workplace. This is causing people to be homeless. This is causing people to go to prison. If you want to cut crime, if you want to end homelessness, you have to deal with sexual violence, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

Goldberg: You have talked about the fact that you don’t want to think of Los Angeles as a sanctuary city, and you’ve got some critiques from the left on that.

Garcetti: The “Democratic position” is to return to where Ronald Reagan was, and where George W. Bush wanted to be—a place where we had a pathway for making sure that people could become citizens. Not just some semi-legal status but full citizens.

I don’t shy away from the term. If “sanctuary city” means a city where our cops are not immigration-enforcement agents, then we are, and proudly so. We care about our own public safety a hell of a lot more than anybody in Washington, D.C. Those policies in L.A. are traced back to a guy named Daryl Gates, who was about as right-wing a police chief as you could imagine—a guy who used to say that black folks were more easily choked out because their bodies were different than white people when they were being killed by LAPD officers—and even he understood that to be effective police officers meant getting trust from immigrant communities.

Goldberg: You’re not going to stop domestic violence if an undocumented immigrant is afraid to call 911.

Garcetti: We were worried this year because of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, we saw a drop-off with Latinos—and no other group—in reporting both sexual violence and domestic violence.

A couple of months ago, we took down a big operation—two years in the making—of MS-13. This gang that the president is obsessed with. We were able to do that because the intelligence that we gathered from Los Angeles Police Department in immigrant areas where some people are legal immigrants and some people are undocumented immigrants because they trust Los Angeles Police Department.

Ironically, the Trump administration is saying they’re going to take away grants from the Department of Justice. We used one of those grants to fund that very same operation. So somebody who says he cares so much about our safety is literally going to take away the federal dollars that we use against MS-13. The irony is too thick to even stir.

Goldberg: So you’ve said something that’s marginally nice about Daryl Gates, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush—you’re obviously running for president, right?

Garcetti: No, no! The point is Americans have always found a common ground on issues of immigration. We used to on the environment. And we just did recently, in California, where you had Republicans voting yes in our state legislature for cap and trade. And, vice versa, Democrats can be for things like lower income taxes. Don’t let that explode our heads because most Americans live in that space.

Goldberg: We’ve never elected someone to the presidency directly from a mayor’s office. Why is that?

Garcetti: I hope some mayors run. Mayors are really good at dealing with things practically. I am totally opposed to so much of the immorality coming out of the White House right now, but I’d like to also talk about its impracticality. This is a very impractical White House. When it comes to public safety, I listen to police chiefs and cops, not to a cable-news station. When it comes to environment, we’re not engaged in ideological conversation about the merits of climate change. We’re actually dealing with the impact.

Goldberg: Back to the Los Angeles Police Department. We still have this image of LAPD.

Garcetti: We’re not better than any other city. But when I watched what happened in Ferguson, I realized we went through it a long time ago, before there were cellphone cameras. We went through a consent decree. We learned the lessons. And we’re not perfect, but we’re much more resilient. We’ve got amazing officers who reflect our ethnic diversity. We’ve done a training for everybody of de-escalation of force.

Policing is really difficult. And there will always be difficult situations when violence is misused. But the measure is not whether or not you have those incidents. Every city will. It’s how resilient you are in dealing with the incidents. We still have a long way to go.

Goldberg: You don’t think there’s a possibility of an incident triggering another riot?

Garcetti: No. We’ve had incidents that could have—and in the past might have. But we’ve gotten through them, even while I’ve been mayor. Not always to everybody’s satisfaction, but not in a way that explodes the city. People—more than less—trust the system to work. Now, I think it’s the best big-city force in America.

Goldberg: You talked about ethnic diversity. Which ethnic group aren’t you a member of? And which one do you need in order to get the presidency?

Garcetti: Look, I’m a typical mutt American. I have an Italian last name. Half-Mexican, half-Jewish.

Goldberg: I’m interested in this ethnic question because I think one of the issues involving this discussion about immigration—there’s a fear that if you bring in immigrants at too fast a pace, they won’t adopt the creed, the set of ideas and behaviors that that make someone an American. You see in Los Angeles, even, where people are waving the Mexican flag and that’s like a gift to Trump.

Garcetti: Look, people fly the Irish flag on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Goldberg: That’s a little different.

Garcetti: Well, see? People think it’s different, but—

Goldberg: —but it’s not political.

Garcetti: It was and has been. Of course it is. I think there’s a tradition in America of different generations that have had waves of immigrants come in—the anti-Chinese, the anti-Irish, the anti-Polish. And right now it’s predominantly anti-Mexican, anti-Latino, and anti-Asian.

Goldberg: But I’m talking about a shared American feeling.

Garcetti: Look, it’s tough for people. Some people who are first-generation immigrants are learning English and are able to integrate themselves. And I think that that is an important American value. I think it’s one that we need to make easier, not more difficult. But the first way to do that is by saying, how can we welcome you here? How can you become a citizen? The public libraries in Los Angeles have “citizenship corners.” Every single one of them. So we have tens of thousands of people that we’ve helped on the pathway to citizenship. That seems to be a much better approach than us yelling at each other.

Goldberg: Lightning Round. What’s your favorite movie about Los Angeles?

Garcetti: Airplane.

Goldberg: What's your second-favorite movie about Los Angeles?

Garcetti: Airplane. It really is my favorite movie about L.A.

Goldberg: What’s your favorite city in California that’s not Los Angeles?

Garcetti: Probably San Diego. I spent a lot of time there for Navy duty.

Goldberg: Why do you hate San Francisco?

Garcetti: San Francisco is a very nice boutique city.

Goldberg: That’s some significant shade!

Garcetti: I actually love San Francisco, I love San Diego, New York. Whenever I traveled there as a kid, they’d always rag on L.A. I always felt like L.A. is a good secret. I don’t care if you come or don’t.

Goldberg: What’s the most misunderstood thing about L.A?

Garcetti: That there’s no soul to it, that there’s no history.

Goldberg: Final question. What’s your favorite restaurant in Los Angeles?

Garcetti: Not a taco stand, right?

Goldberg: I didn’t say that.

Garcetti: Yuca’s Tacos. They have the best cochinita pibil, this marinated pork dish from the Yucatán. You stand in a parking lot across from a grocery store. Best taco in town.

Goldberg: Will you actually run for president?

Garcetti: I don’t ever say no but I’m pretty darn focused on being mayor.