This summer, as residents of the City of Los Angeles found themselves caught in the middle of the deadly economic reopening pushed by Kathryn Barger, the Republican head of the County Board of Supervisors, I called Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti the “unhittable object.” As he had done at so many points during his now nearly two-decade-long tenancy in City Hall, Garcetti had put his best foot backward, reopening gyms, bars, and other businesses in Los Angeles, despite, by all appearances, never thinking it was a good idea to do so.
The Mayor’s obsequiousness to the county in allowing businesses to briefly reopen had real costs, both in lives lost and in businesses disrupted if not destroyed. Nonetheless, the mayor had a simple rationalization for his inaction: once Governor Newsom had acceded to Supervisor Barger’s reopening request, there was “no public health benefit” to the city maintaining more protective standards than the county. The whole issue was, in his opinion, out of his hands and, most importantly, he could not be blamed for it.
Thus, the unhittable object: in contrast to the cliché of the immovable object, Garcetti’s paramount concern has been evasiveness. It has been impossible to make any of the responsibilities that should be inherent in his role as the city’s top administrator stick to him, and that seems to be the way that he likes it.
The same has been true of the scandals in which City Hall has found itself immersed throughout Garcetti’s tenure. The widening scope of pay-to-pay allegations in City Council’s development approvals process, a revolving door of corrupt influence from former city staffers, and unethical conduct in the city’s investigation into LADWP’s billing of its customers. No matter what the case may be, and no matter to what degree it may seem to penetrate into the sphere of Garcetti’s influence, it has made little difference. As around the city political careers fall like braised meat off the bone, the mayor has seen to it that nothing attaches to himself.
At least, that was the case before this past week. In journalist Yashar Ali’s multipart treatment of the Rick Jacobs story, Garcetti has encountered a scandal he is struggling to blame on someone else. The conclusion that emerges in the Jacobs affair, which is decidedly more mundane but certainly no less important than that in the cinematic case of fallen former councilmember José Huizar, is that Eric Garcetti is a terrible boss. If even a portion of the reports are true, the mayor is someone who subjects his subordinates to abuse knowingly because it makes his own life – and his path to higher office – easier.
The revelation that Garcetti’s office may have been rife with sexual harassment for years is important. For Garcetti is what in the sports world is known as a frontrunner. He’s quick to claim political movements, the Me Too movement is a prominent example, once these bottoms-up cultural reckonings have organically achieved power or recognition. He seized the mantle of a sexual misconduct reformer, even, according to Ali’s reporting, as he was joking about the conduct of one of his closest professional allies.
With what seems like a constant stream of reports being published in the press about what is alleged to be – and certainly reads like – a hostile work environment in the mayor’s office, a different image of Garcetti is taking shape. The picture of a progressive leader who values safe and healthy workplaces and relationships is being replaced by a new one, in which the mayor’s friend and confidant sexually harasses, bullies, assaults at will. One in which that same friend, Jacobs, is protected by the mayor and his wife, Amy Wakeland, because of his importance to safeguarding their own access to national and international circles of power.
Perhaps that is why these claims seem to have more sticking power. Having cultivated an aspect of almost monastic do-nothingness over the course of a long career, accusations of Garcetti having done this or that thing with corrupt intent have always been a tough sell. One struggles to imagine him taking the requisite initiative. But now that this same inaction is at issue, it is believable, even eminently so.
And we must remember what brought this Big Coming-Undone about. The initial claim, the factual truth of which I do not doubt, came from an LAPD cop who served on Garcetti’s detail for years. In timing either remarkable or intentional, the officer’s complaint was lodged just two weeks after the mayor had disavowed, in the wake of anti-police violence protests, his own proposal to raise the police budget.
Anticapitalist groups in Los Angeles like local chapters of Black Lives Matter and Democratic Socialists of America have contended for years that police, represented within the city by the LAPD and by the LAPD’s political mouthpiece and money faucet, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, or LAPPL, exert unmatched influence over the doings of LA’s elected leaders. This influence is so total that those attuned to the wrenching culture of police violence in the city frequently characterize the relationship as one of ownership.
The exchange of benefits is clear. Politicians receive thousands of dollars, if not more, from the LAPPL to pad their campaign wallets. The police receive what might be called an ideological surety, an IOU to be paid out every year during the budget process and from time to time when, for example, police malconduct becomes the subject of greater scrutiny and public outrage. The police have been insulated from changes in the broader political tides and expect a continual ramping-up in the city’s at-the-expense-of-all-else reliance on them.
What do you do if crime is going up? Hire more armed police. What do you do if crime is going down? Hire more armed police. How do you respond if Los Angeles is experiencing an unprecedented budget shortfall? Give police raises as other workers face layoffs and furloughs.
And what happens if the politicians even mildly buck the yoke? In the Jacobs case, we get our answer. This year, as Black Lives Matter has led successful campaigns to center the budgetary power that the city wields to wage systematic police violence against Angelenos, public anger has grown beyond the ability of politicians to contain it. Facing pressure to affect far-reaching changes to spending, councilmembers have condescended to Angelenos even as they attempt to mollify their anger.
But even this interposition of Garcetti and the council between police and the public who have sought much greater reductions in spending on the occupying force of the LAPD has not been enough for the LAPPL. The leadership of the police union treated Garcetti’s meek suggestion that police should share in the budget reductions necessitated by the Covid recession as an act of treason. They questioned his sanity. And, within a few weeks, they would launch the most successful attack to date on the most successful politician in the city. It is hard to imagine that it was not retributive. Even if it is never proven to be so, for the elected officials in LA who one assumes make up the intended audience, the message the LAPPL is sending is plain: “We’ll collect what we paid for.”
Garcetti, who looked like an unsinkable political prospect with one foot – hell, both feet – out the door on his way to a career in national politics, is now taking on water. It is a stunningly complete vindication of the leftist interpretation of Los Angeles’s municipal politics, an interpretation that sees incumbent politicians as bought, paid for and controlled ferociously by the police. If you envision in Los Angeles a city with social services, a safety net, and a robust public life, you cannot get there with this set of politicians.