National government does not stand alone; it needs to learn from successful policies in cities and states. Strong communities should be at the top of the agenda. And “politicians come and go, but community actions stay.”
These were themes to which Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti returned again and again on May 2 when he was interviewed by Gillian Tett of the Financial Times at a joint event with the Berggruen Institute.
Emphasizing local policy-making is important for California, where environmental and other policies are threatened by the Trump administration. It is important for Los
Angeles, which as Garcetti emphasised is determined to protect its foreign-born residents. It is important for the whole United States because local communities have had to bear the brunt of economic and social change, but at the same time have become sites of renewed activism.
Introducing Garcetti, Berggruen Prize founder Nicolas Berggruen described him as an ‘insider-outsider’ and accordingly someone who will bring people together. American progressives are short on standard-bearers with proven bipartisan appeal and Garcetti recently won re-election with more than 80% of the vote. He called attention to his immigrant grandfather and both Latino and Jewish heritage. And when Tett asked what should be on the Democratic Party’s agenda, he said, “we need to be less focused on an agenda for the Democratic Party and focus on one for the American people.”
Not being completely an insider can have advantages in these days when national politicians are so widely distrusted and the political party system seems broken. But being an ‘insider-outsider’ and appealing across the political spectrum can also be tricky. There are demands to demonstrate commitment, authenticity, and roots as well as to recognize the pet issues of different factions. It’s a challenge to appeal at the same time to business leaders, the working poor, and campaigners for social justice, and to advocate for economic growth that depends on globalization even while reassuring nationalists worried about foreign threats.
The issues Garcetti emphasized show where he thinks broad support can be found. He called for a health care system that works, for education funding, and for raising the minimum wage. He decried tax proposals that would increase the burden on lower and middle-class families. He worried about economic conditions that make stable family life hard.
But for the most part, Garcetti stuck to the positive. He offered a politics of aspirations not of grievances. Resisting the temptation to spend much time criticizing President Trump, he instead called for the President to “surprise us, and not in the way you have been doing. Surprise us by being Nixon in China on immigration and putting together comprehensive immigration reform.” Garcetti imagined more possible good surprises: real bipartisan work on infrastructure, a serious policy on jobs that recognized the challenge of automation rather than scapegoating immigrants, admission that Americans really did want a good healthcare system, though achieving that is complicated.
Garcetti may be a relative newcomer to national politics, but he emphasised that he has spent considerably more time learning the craft of governing than the current US president. He gently reminded Mr. Trump that government is more than the president and executive orders, and that producing major changes takes working with Congress, Courts, and even the bureaucracy. Success may mean just one major new policy in a year, not numerous minimally implemented proposals.
Garcetti pointed to two ballot initiatives that passed with his support at the same time he won re-election. The first was to improve transportation and related infrastructure. Traffic, Garcetti said, is a basic issue for both productivity and quality of life – and of course infrastructural investments create jobs. The second was to address the major problem of homelessness and shortages of affordable housing – problems that have become acute in LA and around the country. The passage of these initiatives, Garcetti suggested, showed that people wanted government that worked practically to solve problems.
Los Angeles has done some successful problem-solving. It has successfully absorbed immigrants and achieved at least relative racial and ethnic harmony at a time of national polarization. Working with California state government, it has dramatically reduced air pollution and begun the building of effective public transit. The tech industry has created more jobs in Los Angeles than in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.
This fit with Garcetti’s closing flourish. Tett pushed him to say what Los Angeles stood for, offering a range of choices from Hollywood to new technology. Garcetti replied simply: the future. “We are not that America that finds 50 reasons to say no. We are the place that will find a reason to say yes.”