Mr. Garcetti’s attempt to test these waters — and the fact that he is being watched with some seriousness despite never running a national or even statewide campaign before — may say less about this city’s mayor and more about the national political landscape.
The success of Mr. Trump, a business executive who had never run for office before, appears to have lowered the bar on the qualifications needed to run for the White House. And the Democratic Party is grappling with a sparse bench of candidates — many of its brightest prospects are in their 70s, like Joe Biden, the former vice president, or are relatively young and little known, like Mr. Garcetti.
“I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director under President Barack Obama. “The traditional definitions of electability have been turned on their heads. The skills that get someone through a presidential campaign are no longer résumé-based. Obama had served two years in the Senate when he started running for president.”
Mike Murphy, a Republican adviser to the presidential campaigns of Senator John S. McCain of Arizona and Jeb Bush, compared Mr. Garcetti to Jimmy Carter, little-known as a first-term governor from Georgia who ran as an outsider against Washington after Watergate.
“It’s audacious, but it’s not insane,” Mr. Murphy said. “ He’s good on his feet. Generational. He’s got a story: West Coast, the future.”
Incidentally, it has been nearly 40 years since a Californian was elected president, something that does not appear to scare off the mayor.
Mr. Garcetti arrived at the interview loaded with statistics and sound-bites, as he offered himself as a member of “an impatient next generation” ready to lead a Democratic Party that he described as being as weak as he could remember.
“The classic rules of American politics are dying if not dead, if you look at the last two presidential elections,” Mr. Garcetti said. “An African-American could never be president until one was, a TV reality star couldn’t become president until one was.”
“There’s definitely an impatient next generation ready to move,” he said.
Mr. Garcetti won re-election with 81 percent of the vote in March, in a race where he did not face strong opposition. Before he became mayor, he served for 12 years on the City Council.
His background reflects the rich texture of the city that he governs and where he was raised. He is both Jewish and Mexican. His father, Gil Garcetti, is a two-term district attorney who prosecuted O.J. Simpson in the double-murder trial that ended in acquittal.
The elder Mr. Garcetti has been seen hanging around his son’s office — which, at the mayor’s instruction, has no desk, and is decorated with art by California painters, on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The mayor plays the piano, and a stand-up piano rests against a wall of his office.
Despite broad support, Mr. Garcetti, has been criticized for being painstakingly cautious, in contrast to the last mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who constantly was throwing out ambitious — and sometimes criticized as too ambitious — ideas: planting a million trees, or taking over the school board. (That said, he succeeded in pushing through a major expansion in the region’s transit system) Mr. Garcetti may end up looking more attractive in places like New Hampshire than Los Angeles.
“The mayor running for president?” Eli Broad, a philanthropic and civic leader, said archly. “He’s showing quite some ambition.”
“He’s stayed away from many controversial issues,” Mr. Broad said. “Pensions. Education reform. He’s done a lot of other good things for the city. But he’s not Mike Bloomberg.”
Mr. Murphy, the Republican adviser who lives in Los Angeles, said while Mr. Garcetti’s bearing and biography would win him a burst of early attention, he may not have the record to carry him through a competitive primary.
“He doesn’t have an ideological profile,” Mr. Murphy said. “He can’t brag about having done much of anything in Los Angeles. The reputation he has among California pols is as a showhorse, not a workhorse.”
Homelessness in the city has reached alarming levels, with clusters of tents showing up in neighborhoods and business districts. Crime here, as in many cities, is on the rise. The city’s finances have benefited from the economic rebound of the last few years, but the budget faces shortfalls in the years ahead.
That said, downtown Los Angeles is booming. Mr. Garcetti championed voter approval of a bond to finance $1.2 billion in housing for the homeless, as well as a sales tax to produce $120 billion to expand the mass transit lines over the next 40 years. He mentioned both measures as the kind of thing he could brag on should he run for president, as well as the success in luring the Summer Olympics back to the city in 2028.
“The White House is not where power comes from in this country,” Mr. Garcetti said. “The cities and the local communities of this nation are prepared to save Washington — and not vice versa.”
Mr. Garcetti said he was “proud to be a Democrat — but I don’t walk around with a ‘D’ on my forehead. I’m progressive and I’m practical.”
In Los Angeles, Mr. Garcetti backed raising the minimum age and reducing business taxes. In the interview, he said he supported a national single-payer health care program — but was not ready to endorse another big priority of some party activists, impeaching Mr. Trump.
California is not exactly viewed as representing mainstream American political thought these day, though Mr. Garcetti said he did not view that as a hindrance. “I don’t buy the idea that cities — or where I am geographically — are some sort of outlier.”
Mr. Pfeiffer, who worked with Mr. Obama from his days as a presidential candidate, called Mr. Garcetti “a very talented politician.”
“He comes across as authentic, which is incredibly important,” he said. “And he’s cool, and I think there’s a cool factor that is very important in a social media age.”
But Joel Benenson, who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and served as Mr. Obama’s pollster, said the biggest thing Mr. Garcetti had going for him was the unsettled political field.
“I think it’s a big jump,” Mr. Benenson said of running for president. “When Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic convention in 2004, a whole lot of people said, ‘This guy is going to be president one day. It might not have been 2008, but they saw it. I don’t know if Eric Garcetti has that — I hate to use the phrase — star quality.”
And the mayor is not the only inexperienced Democrat being mentioned: There’s also Senator Kamala Harris of California, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, to name a few. Mr. Garcetti said the surge of interest showed that Democrats were ready for new generation of leadership. Not that should be seen as any slight on the older crowd.
“I wouldn’t say get out of the way,” Mr. Garcetti said. “That’s not how I function. I say there’s room for all of us.”
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