DES MOINES, Iowa — Last Friday, nine political reporters waited in the break room of a brand-new carpenter’s training facility in Altoona, Iowa, amid the buzzing of vending machines and the glare of fluorescent lights, for Eric Garcetti, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, to arrive.
The official reason Garcetti had flown 1,700 miles from L.A. to Iowa was to exchange ideas with a few fellow mayors and deliver pep talks to local Democrats gearing up for the 2018 midterm elections.
But the real reason, as Garcetti himself has admitted on numerous occasions, is that he is thinking about running for president in 2020. (He had already visited New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the other early primary states.) And so the national media — the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, NBC, Slate and Yahoo News — descended as well, even though Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are still more than 600 days away.
“How’s the campaign going?” one reporter mockingly asked another. “Is Garcetti ahead?”
“I’m waiting for the Des Moines Register poll to post on Sunday,” the second reporter cracked in response.
Suddenly, Garcetti appeared in the doorway. A scrum of millwrights, union leaders, facility managers and Altoona dignitaries surrounded him. Many were wearing large white hardhats and clear plastic goggles, Garcetti included.
“How’s everybody doing?” he said.
In the press pack, someone teasingly mentioned Michael Dukakis, whose ill-advised decision to don a helmet and mount a tank hobbled his own 1988 presidential bid. Garcetti’s media liaison, Yusef Robb, did a double-take. As Garcetti began to pose for photos, Robb tapped his boss on the shoulder and pointed to his head. The mayor got the message. He whipped off the hat, ran his fingers through his hair and flashed another smile for the cameras.
Garcetti, at 47, is no political novice. He rocketed from city councilman to council president to mayor in 2013, and last year he won reelection with 81 percent of the vote. If he had left the protective headwear on, nobody would have minded or even noticed; hardhat photos of Donald Trump, Barack Obama and each of their five presidential predecessors are all over the internet.
Yet Garcetti’s on-the-fly adjustment reflected, in miniature, the larger challenge facing the Instagramming, jazz-loving, Spanish-speaking, Jewish-Latino mayor of the nation’s second-largest city — and the disoriented party he may someday aspire to lead. Both are figuring who they want to be in the Age of Trump; both are grappling with how best to present themselves to an America that denied Hillary Clinton the presidency and awarded it to the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” instead.
Throughout his two-day Iowa trip, Garcetti was constantly refining and recalibrating — his manner, his image, his message.
Each time he emerged from the SUV conveying him across Iowa’s chilly April landscape, the candidate-in-waiting seemed to have changed clothes: an olive work shirt (or “shacket,” as Garcetti put it) for a breakfast with firefighters at a dive called Mullets; a V-neck sweater and untucked plaid shirt for a stop at Cooney’s Tavern; a slim, natty suit for a One Iowa gay-rights gala.
When an Iowa reporter asked under what circumstances he would run for president, Garcetti insisted that he would be “listening this year,” promising a final decision in 2019. Then, a few minutes later, he requested a “do-over.”
“I’m not here looking for a new job for me,” the mayor said, testing out a snappy line that seemed to have just occurred to him. “I’m looking for more new jobs for Americans.”
The process was fascinating to watch: an early glimpse of an unfamiliar politician from one of the most glamorous corners of the country beginning to mold himself into the kind of candidate whom workaday Middle Americans might want in the White House in two years’ time.
One thing, at least, was already clear by the end of Garcetti’s 300-mile swing, which took him from the state Capitol in Des Moines to his wife’s ancestors’ gravesite in Waterloo to a ballroom fundraiser in Davenport. He seems to think that the kind of candidate America will want in 2020 is the same kind of candidate it wanted not that long ago.
Namely, the Barack Obama kind.
“I’m confident that the next president will be a contrast to this president: a decent person with the ability to unite folks and be hopeful,” Garcetti told me during an interview Saturday at Mullets.
“Right now, there’s a false dichotomy between red and blue, heartland and coast, rural and urban,” he said later. “The only ‘two Americas’ that exist are Washington and the rest of us.”
What isn’t clear, at a moment when most high-profile Democrats are blaming billionaires, bashing Donald Trump and burnishing their partisan bona fides, is whether “hope and change” still packs the punch it once did — or whether Garcetti can be the guy who revives it.
The 2020 Democratic field is shaping up to be the most crowded and chaotic in recent memory. There’s no obvious frontrunner — no Obama or Hillary Clinton — to scare off the rest of the pack, and Trump’s daily provocations and historically weak approval ratings seem to have persuaded every elected Democrat in America that he or she could be the party’s next savior. In one lane, you have the brand-name senior citizens: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In another, you have the restless rookies: California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Then there are all the wishful thinkers in between: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Maryland Rep. John Delaney and so on.
Garcetti isn’t even the sole mayor considering a bid; both Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans and Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have expressed interest. But so far, Garcetti may be the only hopeful betting that Obama’s 2008 playbook could still be the ticket to victory, a dozen years after it was first deployed.
Garcetti comes by this conviction honestly; he once told me that Obama was his “mentor.” As a young city councilman in 2007, Garcetti was among the first pols to endorse the Illinois senator, and he trekked to Iowa several times as a volunteer. During a stroll with the mayor of Des Moines through the city’s bustling East Village neighborhood last week, he paused to snap a selfie in front of Walnut Creek Church — Obama’s former campaign headquarters.
“I’ve got memories of meeting David Axelrod here, Kal Penn, so many people,” Garcetti said. “Even now, people will come up to me and be like, ‘We met in Iowa!’”
Over the next two days, Garcetti repeatedly began his speeches by reminding Iowans that his history with the former president started in their state.
“It’s been a decade since I was last here, walking precincts for a young senator from just one state away,” Garcetti said Friday at a meeting of Asian and Latino activists. “It was probably the best political experience of my life.”
“I remember knocking on a door with snow up to my waist, and someone answering it and saying, ‘We don’t care who you’re supporting — we’ll vote for him if you just come in,’” he added the following night in Davenport. “We miss those times. We miss that man, don’t we?”
And so, while the rest of his would-be rivals seem to be rebutting Trump in more pugnacious, populist tones, Garcetti has decided to dust off Obama’s signature strategy.
There was, for one thing, the focus on biography — the effort to recast his own story as America’s story, writ small. On paper, Barack Hussein Obama once seemed like an alien life form: half-black, half white, with an absentee Kenyan father, a globetrotting anthropologist mother, a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia, and a name that evoked the despised leaders of both Iraq and al-Qaida. Garcetti is equally exotic: a half-Latino, half-Jewish Rhodes Scholar with a penchant for composing jazz on his office piano and a vibe uncannily in tune with L.A.’s current idea of itself — cool, elite, tech-savvy, liberal, multicultural and aesthetically pleasing.
In Iowa, Garcetti bypassed the less useful aspects of his narrative — again, much like Obama. He never mentioned his dad, former L.A. district attorney and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Gil Garcetti, or his mom, a wealthy philanthropist from the prominent Roth clothing family; he never mentioned jamming with Moby, or salsa-dancing with Salma Hayek at the North Pole, or how he’s perhaps the only elected official in America whose own home, a meticulously renovated 1950s post-and-beam with solar panels and walls of glass, once appeared in Dwell magazine.
Instead, Garcetti focused on his Mexican-American paternal grandparents, whose immigrant success story he framed as a rebuke to the Trump administration’s restrictionist agenda. As he addressed several dozen Asian and Latino activists in Des Moines, Garcetti explained how his grandfather Sal “was what we call a ‘Dreamer’ before that term was ever used”; how Sal was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua; how his grandfather’s own father had died in the Mexican Revolution; how, as an infant, his mother carried him north across the border, all the way to California; how he met Garcetti’s grandmother, a meatpacker, in Los Angeles; how he volunteered to fight in World War II, even though he wasn’t a citizen, all because “the country he loved needed him”; how he and his wife “saved their pennies” after the war and eventually opened a barbershop.
“Today their grandson is the mayor of the largest city in the largest state in this nation because America said, ‘You belong,’” Garcetti added in Davenport. “We all have that story.”
Another challenge Obama confronted in 2008 was his resume, which was shorter, when he announced, than any previous president’s: three terms in the Illinois Legislature, a year or so in the U.S. Senate. Garcetti has a similar handicap. No mayor in U.S. history has ever ascended directly from City Hall to the White House, and only one — New York’s DeWitt Clinton, way back in 1812 — has even secured his party’s presidential nomination.
So Garcetti spent his time in Iowa doing precisely what Obama once did: spinning his unconventional CV as a plus, not a minus — the mark of an outsider with the skills and experience to cure what ails Washington, D.C. Obama identified the problem as partisanship — our “broken politics.” For Garcetti, the issue today is incompetence.
“We have leadership that isn’t just indecent or divisive,” he said in Des Moines. “It’s ineffective. It’s just not getting the job done.”
Rather than assail Trump directly, Garcetti again and again defined the coming presidential contest as a choice between Trump’s Washington, where “division” and “distraction” reign, and the alternative he claims to embody: the rest of America, where mayors like him dirty their hands and actually work to improve people’s lives.
“We’ve got an egoist in the White House who thinks that greatness in this country will flow out of him,” Garcetti told me at Mullets. “That’s BS. It comes from us — from our local communities.”
For both Obama and Garcetti, the final point was perhaps the most important: I may not come from here — and you may not agree with me on everything — but deep down, we’re all the same. The problem for Garcetti is that a lot has changed since 2008, and today’s Democratic Party seems more inclined to divide and conquer — along lines of identity, ideology and class — than Obama’s party ever did.
Still, Garcetti emphasized unity at every turn.
When talk turned to Los Angeles, with its exotic landscape of palm trees and Kardashians, he reminded listeners that the USS Iowa is stationed there as a maritime museum and that Long Beach, largely settled by Midwestern transplants, was once called “Iowa by the Sea.”
“I think that Iowa and Los Angeles have a ton in common,” Garcetti told the six dozen Polk County Democrats who huddled inside Cooney’s on a drizzly Saturday morning.
When it was time to order food with the tattooed firefighters at Mullets, the mayor made sure to select a unifying dish. “In L.A., we have breakfast burritos,” he announced. “This is great!”
Making small talk beneath wall-to-wall tchotchkes — old license plates, Iowa sports pennants, framed photos of be-mulleted celebrities like Lionel Richie and Chuck Norris — he recounted his most salt-of-the-earth moment as mayor. “So when the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2014, I was there,” he told a pair of bald, burly firemen. “And I got up with a beer in my hand and said, ‘So there are two cardinal rules of politics: never swear and never have your picture taken holding a drink. But this is a big fucking day!’”
After Garcetti left Cooney’s, his security detail took a 110-mile detour to the Elmwood Cemetery in Waterloo, where he braved hail and high winds to pose for a photo next to the marbled-granite headstone of his wife’s great-grandparents. There were no voters present to observe Garcetti FaceTiming with his wife, Amy Wakeland, or knocking on the nearby door of her grandparents’ first home — just three reporters who had been previously informed of the jaunt.
But when Garcetti spoke later that night in Davenport to a crowd of hundreds of influential Scott County Democrats, he did not forget to mention it.
“I just came earlier today from Waterloo, where my wife’s family is from,” he said. “I saw the name of her granduncle who never made it back from World War II — who left his life on the fields of war, sacrificing for our freedoms.”
“I know I’m a long way from Los Angeles,” Garcetti continued. “But I’m here because what happens here in Iowa affects me in Los Angeles. And what happens in Los Angeles affects you here in Iowa. I still believe that in this room, we are one Democratic family — and outside these doors, we are one American family.”
With that, the Democrats of Davenport applauded, politely.
If Garcetti does decide to run, the key question will be whether this kind of polite, uplifting rhetoric is enough — both for Democrats hell-bent on resistance and a national debate deformed by Trump’s trash talk.
Earlier that morning at Mullets, I asked the mayor what would stop Republicans from caricaturing him as an elite Hollywood liberal.
“Nothing,” he said.
“But how would you combat it?” I wondered.
“Very easily,” he replied. “Trump’s a billionaire. It’s difficult for a billionaire to call other people ‘elitist.’ An Ivy League billionaire from Manhattan who’s famous because of his time in Hollywood …”
Garcetti trailed off. I started to ask another question, but suddenly, he realized he wasn’t done.
“… dating models and porn stars,” he added with a laugh. “Can I say that too?”
Garcetti seemed pleased with his answer — even though he had just described what many Trump voters like best about Trump.
A similar thing happened when I asked whether Democrats need to run on big, easy-to-understand, Bernie-Sanders-style ideas in the wake of Clinton’s detailed-yet-defeated campaign.
“Absolutely,” Garcetti said. “There’s all sorts of big ideas.”
After five years in charge of Los Angeles, Garcetti has real accomplishments to tout (along with some real liabilities, including L.A.’s rising homeless population, which he is trying to address.) He proceeded to rattle off a few of the former. He’s raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He’s made community college and trade school free for full-time students. He’s created 30,000 new green jobs. He’s spearheaded some of the largest infrastructure projects in the county. These are all programs, he added, that “he’d like to do around the county.”
They are also programs that Clinton proposed in 2016.
Regardless, Garcetti received warm reviews throughout Iowa last week.
“He seems to be really down-to-earth and easy to talk to,” said Joe Van Haalen, president of the Des Moines firefighters union. “I think people are getting more interested in smaller-time politicians — people like mayors who have day-to-day contact, unlike those in the national spotlight who are so far removed.”
“He’s got some of the Obama buzz,” added Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats. “Somebody who is coming out of nowhere, but is dynamic, has a great American story and has the ability to cross a bunch of different lines within the Democratic Party and with independent voters.”
Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if that Obama buzz will continue to cut through in today’s noisier political arena — particularly after the rest of the Democratic cavalry joins Garcetti on the trail.
As he wandered through the East Village in Des Moines Friday, the mayor encountered a boutique called Raygun, which is well-known, in Iowa and beyond, for its wryly humorous T-shirts, tank tops, coasters and coozies. He decided to pop in and buy a few souvenirs for his wife and daughter. With a flock of reporters and photographers in tow, the visit immediately took on a kind of meta-significance. Was Garcetti simply shopping for gifts? Or was he trying to make a statement? Navigating around racks of garments screenprinted with pointed, progressive slogans, it was easy to imagine what Elizabeth Warren might purchase (“Nevertheless She Persisted”). Or Cory Booker (“Racial Justice Now”). Or Bernie Sanders (“Totally Unhinged Liberal”).
So what did Garcetti buy? “Midwest: Hell Yes” for his wife and “I Was a Girl Scout Before It Was Radical” for his daughter.
“People really need to feel you,” Garcetti explained later, when I asked what he learned about politics watching Obama campaign in Iowa. “Authenticity is even more important than your positions. I think Obama came out of nowhere because people trusted him. And he won that trust over one conversation at a time, one speech at a time. It wasn’t a performance. It was an opening up of who he was.”
At the end of each event last week — each conversation — Garcetti promised that he would “be back.” No doubt he will continue the process of “opening up” who he is, if and when he returns. What remains to be seen is whether, in the age of Trump, America is still open to someone like him.
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