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What We Know About Mayor Garcetti’s Possible Exit And The City Hall Leadership Shuffle

An image of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti speaking into a microphone and pointing up with his right finger
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's exit could trigger a round of musical chairs at City Hall.
(Christian Petersen
Getty Images)
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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will possibly be learning the ropes of a new job soon, roughly 8,000 miles from City Hall. Last week, the White House announced President Biden has nominated Garcetti to be U.S. Ambassador to India — rewarding a loyal 2020 campaign surrogate and fundraiser.

The confirmation process could take several months, meaning the city has entered an unprecedented transition period, with a mayor making a very slow exit from his job more than a year ahead of schedule.

So what’s next for L.A. politics, with City Hall in leadership limbo?

Garcetti’s possible departure and the subsequent shuffling could derail progress on important policy goals, said Cyndi Otteson, a leadership coach who ran for city council last year in the 14th District.

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When an elected official leaves their position early for another career choice, that often becomes another scapegoat for the lack of results.
— Cyndi Otteson

“When an elected official leaves their position early for another career choice, that often becomes another scapegoat for the lack of results,” Otteson said. “It’s another reason for not making headway in areas like homelessness, climate change and transportation. And oftentimes people can't make that connection of why things aren't getting better.”

Garcetti said in a statement that he’ll continue to bring “passion” and “focus” to the job as mayor while he waits for the gears of the Senate to grind toward confirmation. When we spoke with City Council President Nury Martinez, she insisted the city won’t miss a beat during the handover.

“The city is designed to adapt and sustain these types of changes in our city charter,” said Martinez, who is considering her own campaign for mayor. “My focus is to ensure that we continue to deliver on our promises to try to rebuild the city, and get through this pandemic.”

The move is a savvy career choice for Garcetti, said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. — one that could lead to a “fresh start” and a chance to reenter politics in the future.

“No L.A. mayor has ever made it, in modern times, to the state or national — let alone international — level,” Sonenshein told KPCC’s AirTalk. “Because you get a lot of slings and arrows as mayor of L.A., or New York. [Big city mayors’] upward mobility is very poor.”

What Happens When The Mayor Resigns

Once Garcetti steps down, Martinez will take the reins as acting mayor — just as she does when the mayor is traveling. Next, the charter says council members must “without delay” take one of two paths: appoint someone to fill out Garcetti's term or call a special election to fill the seat. That second scenario is highly unlikely because of the cost and because next year’s June 7 mayoral primary is not that far off.

The council is more likely to appoint a mayor to complete the mayor's term, which ends in December 2022. While it’s a far more plausible outcome, it raises plenty of sticky political questions.

The choice to appoint a Garcetti successor could come amidst the early raucous stages of the campaign to be elected to a new four-year term. One of the few things everyone in L.A. politics seems to agree on is that they don’t want a candidate for mayor to occupy the seat leading up to the election.

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"Council members will probably hope that there will be an interim mayor who doesn't want to run,” Sonenshein said. “But other than if someone is term limited, like Antonio Villaraigosa, I don't know that there’s any way they can enforce that promise.”

Aside from Martinez, two other members of the council are considering their own campaigns for mayor, while Councilmember Joe Buscaino has already declared his candidacy and been stumping for weeks. Other council members said to be considering a run include Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin de León. City Attorney Mike Feuer has also thrown his hat into the ring. It may soon be tough to find an interim mayor on the council or in city government who will be seen as a neutral caretaker.

'We Haven't Even Had That Conversation Yet'

According to Martinez, choosing an interim mayor is “something that we need to debate in council — we haven't even had that conversation yet.”

She added: “I'm not interested in the politics or other folks playing politics in the building. What I want us to focus on is … addressing the number-one issue in the city, which is homelessness.”

Nury Martinez
(Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Martinez does note that neither Los Angeles nor New York City has had an elected female mayor: “And then you look at leaders like Governor Gretchen Whitmer from Michigan, and Keisha Lance Bottoms from Atlanta, and London Breed from San Francisco — all the hate that they endure during these difficult times.”

“We can't turn a blind eye and think that this country has progressed as much as we think it has, if it has not elected a female president and a female mayor in New York or Los Angeles. We've got to do better.”

The council should be looking for competence in city government and minimum drama, said Jamarah Hayner, an L.A. political consultant who primarily works with progressive candidates.

“This is tough, in-the-trenches work,” Hayner said. “This is not a space for ego. This is not the space for short-term political points. People are looking for really sustainable and deep solutions.”

Who Might Be Named Interim Mayor?

One of the biggest jobs on the interim mayor’s agenda will be writing a budget for the next fiscal year — a problem complicated by the expiration date on federal COVID-19 relief money.

“They need to find somebody who has respect from city leadership,” said John Shallman, a political consultant who is working on Feuer’s mayoral campaign. “Not just within the political elected world, but also business, community leaders and organized labor, [someone] who can sit down and negotiate budgets.”

City Hall insiders who may be considered to bridge the gap as interim mayor include:

  • Paul Krekorian, now in his third and final term representing the 2nd District on the city council, which includes North Hollywood and Studio City. As chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, he has shepherded several tricky budgets to passage.
  • Herb Wesson, former City Council President and California Assembly Speaker who ran unsuccessfully for the county Board of Supervisors last year.
  • Austin Beutner, the just-departed Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent who was first deputy mayor for Antonio Villaraigosa and defeated in his 2012 campaign for mayor by Garcetti and Wendy Greuel. (He’s reportedly entertaining the idea of another run.)
  • Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of L.A. from 2005-13. He certainly has the experience for the job, though his eligibility is somewhat in question due to term limits. Last month, Villaraigosa told the L.A. Times, “If called upon, I’d be honored.”The council may also opt to sidestep political questions by appointing a professional, non-politician such as Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso or former City Administrative Officer Rich Llewellyn, who’s now serving as Garcetti's interim chief of staff.

For whomever the council ultimately lands on as interim mayor, “there’s a lot more that has to be done,” said Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Baldwin Hills).

“We have LAPD officers trying to do homeless outreach on the Venice boardwalk, for example. We have to start investing in the kinds of systems of care and opportunity that uplift from the bottom and don't exacerbate those root conditions.”