How to Run for President While You’re Running a City

The core of Eric Garcetti’s potential campaign would be his experience as mayor of Los Angeles. But that’s a hard job to do on the road.

Charles Platiau / Reuters

LOS ANGELES—A few months ago, Eric Garcetti met with a well-connected Democrat—the type whom people planning presidential campaigns have spent the past year talking to. The Los Angeles mayor, who’s in the final stages of deciding whether to run for the White House, talked up his ideas for a campaign. They chitchatted. Then Garcetti, as he always does to be polite, asked for advice.

The response: “Resign.”

“It’s common sense,” said the person who’d spoken to Garcetti, asking not to be identified because the meeting was private. “You can’t run a city and run for president at the same time, especially when the city is on the West Coast and Iowa and New Hampshire are in the Midwest and East Coast.”

This wasn’t the first time someone had suggested to Garcetti that he should quit his job if he really wants to focus on a presidential run. And it wasn’t the last.

According to people who’ve been in meetings between Garcetti and party power brokers, he lets the conversation move on whenever the subject of resignation comes up, just as he did that day a few months ago. He has never taken the idea of quitting seriously.

But as he’s gotten closer to a decision on whether to run, he and his team of advisers—both political and governmental—have begun building a plan for what to do if he’s out stumping in Cedar Rapids or Charleston. Security will have to be adjusted, because as mayor he’s protected by the Los Angeles Police Department wherever he goes. His regular Monday-afternoon meeting with the general managers of city agencies might be shifted to a shorter daily phone call or video conference. And the idea has been floated of the campaign paying for a city worker to travel with him, facilitating government operations with the chief executive when he’s out of town.

A mayor would be new for a presidential race; none has run since then–New York City Mayor John Lindsay in 1972. Unlike senators, mayors have management responsibilities that follow them around 24 hours a day. And unlike governors, constituents expect mayors to be in the direct line of command for everything from fires and police shootings to labor strikes and trash collection. By virtue of the city’s political system, the mayor of Los Angeles is weaker than those of other big cities. Much of the power is vested in the city council and in the Los Angeles County supervisors. But Garcetti still has significant responsibilities that would be complicated by a presidential bid.

Garcetti would try to sell voters on his cosmopolitan, sunny-California vision of the future, and frame himself as a Barack Obama–esque figure who represents America’s identity as a nation of immigrants. Half-Jewish and half-Mexican (the Mexican side of his family goes back to Italy), Garcetti is a fluent Spanish speaker, a Rhodes scholar, and a Navy intelligence reservist. He loves making political jabs rooted in word play, such as “There are two Americas: Washington and the rest of us.” Or there’s the one he tried out while campaigning in the midterms, describing how Donald Trump practices the politics of division and subtraction, but how he likes the politics of addition and multiplication.

The core of his argument for running, though, would be his experience as mayor. He’s already road tested his case that Los Angeles is bigger and more complicated than most states, with more people from more places doing more things, creating more problems and, conversely, more solutions. He’d come to the White House, the argument goes, with a view of government not as part of an abstract partisan debate, but as something that actually has an impact on people’s lives day to day.

As his critics like to point out and as the mayor himself acknowledges, there’s a catch: If the job is so demanding, how will Garcetti explain that he’s able to do it so often on the road, while working on the campaign? How will he explain spending months, even years, away, attending debates and town halls and forums and county fairs? Garcetti doesn’t seem to have a campaign slogan yet, but he’s landed on a hashtag: #MayorsGetThingsDone. But how much can he be getting done as mayor if he’s out of the city so much?

When we spoke recently, Garcetti had an answer ready.

“Anybody who’s done the job—that’s the wrong question. This is like a mini country,” the mayor told me in an interview. Standing by his car, he was headed to his next event after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new housing project in the Sun Valley neighborhood, part of the citywide response to its homelessness crisis. Garcetti argued that given Los Angeles’s size, getting from one end of the city to the other can be like traveling between disparate states. “It takes me as long as a flight, probably,” he said.

The tension between his day job and his presidential ambitions may soon come to a head: Garcetti has said he’d decide by the end of 2018, and make an announcement either way by the first quarter of 2019. But this month, right in the middle of what’s expected to be a rush of candidate announcements, he’s facing a potential teachers’ strike that could shut down city schools. The deadline for a new teachers’ contract is January 10.

Michael Trujillo, an L.A.-based Democratic operative who worked for Garcetti’s predecessor and rival, Antonio Villaraigosa, and managed the campaign of Garcetti’s main 2013 opponent, said he sees this as a perfect example of how a 2020 campaign could leave the city with “distracted” leadership. “I don’t know how you roll out a presidential campaign when the federal government is shut down and every L.A. public school is shut down, too,” Trujillo said. “I don’t think he can do both.”

Ed Rendell doubts it, too. Rendell, whose final months as mayor of Philadelphia, in 1999, overlapped with his first two months as a co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, said he took the national political job on the condition that he’d work only nights and weekends until his tenure was up at City Hall. “I could not imagine running for anything and doing my job as mayor,” Rendell said.

Rendell also said the kind of campaigning it would take to bring up Garcetti’s poll numbers, now in the low single digits because few people know him, is beyond what a full-time mayor can manage—though he noted that there might be some wiggle room given the weak-mayor structure in L.A. “Garcetti can try to do both mayor and candidate, but I don’t think he can give the right amount of time for a candidate who’s really not well known, who has to get out there,” Rendell said.

Garcetti isn’t the only sitting mayor likely to run in 2020: Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, seems close to announcing his bid. But Buttigieg’s city is a fraction of the size of Los Angeles, and thus infinitely less complicated. He announced in December that he won’t be running for reelection once his term is up at the end of the year, though he didn’t officially say his decision was linked to a presidential run. Michael Bloomberg of New York is also considering a presidential bid, though he hasn’t run the city in five years. Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who left office last year, hasn’t ruled out a campaign yet.

Garcetti’s advisers argue that they’ve had practice runs for what the next two years could be like, citing how, for example, he once helped set negotiations in motion over a labor dispute just before leaving on a long trade mission to Asia. Indeed, the mayor has been out of the city frequently over the past two years: pitching Los Angeles as a location for the 2028 Summer Olympics, taking on several roles within the U.S. Conference of Mayors, convening his Accelerator for America nonprofit group that’s focused on infrastructure investments, and stumping for midterm candidates in Minnesota, Ohio, and Mississippi—all while taking enough personal political trips to tease his presidential prospects and drum up donors. “In this day and age, you can be mayor anywhere,” Garcetti told me, arguing that much of his travel has been done on behalf of the city—“to win the Olympics, to get funding from D.C., to get Sacramento to focus on homelessness.”

Garcetti’s advisers insist that so far, nothing major has gone wrong during his travels. When he is out of state, the city-council president becomes the acting mayor. Typically, the acting mayor is responsible for only technical matters that legally need to be completed in person, in state. Garcetti and his team remain in control, and he’s regularly in contact on both long-term planning and smaller daily issues.

City Council President Herb Wesson—who often works in tandem with Garcetti, though the two don’t have deep political connections—told me he’s never had to oversee much more than the occasional technicality as acting mayor. “One of the reasons that the mayor can freely travel—because he is the face of this great city—is because the council gets things done, and there is constant communication,” Wesson said in a recent interview in his district office.

“If he were gone for 30 days, based on the level of communication, based on the relationships between the mayor and the council, this city would get on without a hitch in its giddy-up,” Wesson said.

Garcetti’s trips have at times created politically tricky juxtapositions. In April, for example, a critical report on the city’s homelessness crisis landed just as he arrived in Des Moines.

Still, he’s remained popular with voters: He won a second term last year with 81 percent of the vote. (Turnout was at a record low, but that’s at least in part a reflection of how no serious opposition ever emerged.) But a presidential campaign could test residents’ patience. Former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn was famously in Washington on a federal lobbying trip during the September 11 attacks, and because flights were grounded, for two days the city’s emergency response was in the hands of the city-council president. Opponents turned the debacle into a campaign issue during Hahn’s losing reelection campaign four years later.

Garcetti’s already been dealing with how to balance his obligations with the city’s homelessness crisis. The mayor helped win a $1.2 billion bond initiative to fund new public housing, but construction is struggling to catch up. While he’s taken some of the responsibility—at the groundbreaking, he said, “We accept that responsibility, and we’re accelerating”—he’s also blamed the state for not doing enough to help, in terms of both funding and policy.

Obviously, there are factors involved in the crisis that exceed city government’s grasp, and Los Angeles is one of many cities struggling with homelessness. But a mayor who’s away for prolonged periods of time might have difficulty shifting blame to other actors for something that’s happening in his city. In the interview after the event, Garcetti joked that for Christmas he’d been thinking about making his staff T-shirts with a list of all the accomplishments he feels he can attribute specifically to the work of his administration: raising the minimum wage, redoing the airport, quadrupling the number of city youth jobs, an infrastructure bond that passed in 2016, all the earthquake-proofing and street paving it’s overseen. He said those efforts have been informed by the time he’s spent outside the city, and have informed what he’s been talking about while he’s been gone.

“The travel that I’ve spent around the country, I always come back with ideas for L.A. And vice versa: My experiences in L.A. give me an immediacy to issues that sometimes people in Washington think about but aren’t experiencing every day,” Garcetti said. “If tomorrow I decide not to run for president, I’m still going to be on the road as much as I have for the last five years to hustle for my city and influence this country, because what happens in this country influences my city.”

But if he does decide to run for president, he’ll be on the road a lot more. And that’s when it’ll really get complicated.