DEEGAN ON LA-Like in the winnowing process, where the wheat is separated from the chaff, the politico in LA who right now emerges with the highest intrinsic value to our city is Mayor Eric Garcetti.
When we arrive at our post-dystopian future, when the COVID-19 pandemic crisis curve has blunted and leveled out, we may look back and recognize him for his leadership of the city during this rupture. He is delivering for us with a steady voice and firm resolve, leading us to behavior never considered just weeks ago.
The Mayor issued several emergency orders directing the closure of bars, nightclubs, gyms and entertainment venues, limiting restaurants to takeout only, relaxing parking enforcement, and declaring a moratorium on rental and commercial evictions. In twenty-four hours, we went from business as usual to isolation at home and social distancing in public and the shutting down much of the city. He reminded us there was plenty of food available and urged us not to hoard. He encouraged us to look after each other in a spirit of unity.
A few days later, Garcetti ramped it up by issuing a “Safer at Home” Emergency Order requiring “all residents of the City of Los Angeles to stay inside their residences, and immediately limit all movement outside of their homes beyond what is absolutely essential.” He stated, “Today is a day that will be seared into the story and the streets of this city. . .it will be a moment where everything changed.”
There is no bombast, narcissism, self-congratulation, confusion, misstatements or misdirection, just a calm, professional voice of credible authority at a time when political leadership is going to make the difference between success and failure. If Biden had not already cancelled the hopes of many men to be a potential vice-presidential candidate, this could have been Garcetti’s job interview. What makes his performance even more notable is that he's not running for higher office; he's trying to protect his city.
Garcetti’s “I am in charge” posture ranks up there with former Governor Pete Wilson’s seminal moment on the night the Rodney King riots broke out in 1992 when he was shown on the 11 p.m. arriving at LAX with the commander of the California National Guard. He went on camera to assure anxious Angelenos that he was here with the National Guard to help in a state of emergency. He stood up and set the tone by saying, I am your leader: follow me. Nobody questioned that, just as nobody has questioned the lead of the Mayor.
Mayors can falter easily: it could be caused by a snowflake or a sneeze.
The charismatic John Lindsay, the mid-60s Mayor of New York who characterized and led New York City as “Fun City, was unable to clear the streets of 15 inches of snow fast enough in the Blizzard of 1969. That imperfection cost him votes in the Republican Mayoral Primary a few months later -- although he ended up running as a third-party-independent in the general mayoral election, splitting the vote between democrats and republicans, resulting in a stunning win for Lindsay in the end.
That blizzard has gone down in New York political history as “the Lindsay Snowstorm,” and become an object lesson for how far and how fast a mayor can fall with one bad decision. For Garcetti, the sound of the city sneezing and coughing with flu-like symptoms could still be politically fatal.
Legacies are created in unusual ways. Robber baron Andrew Mellon, a banker, businessman, industrialist and art collector had a problem when the U.S. Government brought a tax fraud and income tax evasion case against him. He also had a very impressive art collection and used it in negotiations with FDR to found the National Gallery of Art. Suddenly the nation had a national museum with Mellon’s art as part of its permanent collection and Mellon had no more tax problems. Reviled in his day, Mellon has gone down in history as a founder of the nation’s greatest museum.
No matter what they say about you today, tomorrow’s memory is what creates a legacy. That’s the bonus Garcetti may get from his leadership during this pandemic, despite being questioned by many for his actions over time, over many issues. Sometimes, one resounding act can mold a legacy that sweeps away many sins. Tomorrow, Garcetti may be remembered as the mayor who got us through one of the most challenging events in our city’s history.
(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appears in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.