Rhodes Scholar, Italian, Mexican, Jew: Meet Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s New Mayor

The 42-year-old son of the city’s former D.A. emerges as a tailor-made fit for the polyglot metropolis
Rex Weiner

Eric Garcetti, the new-ish mayor of Los Angeles, is on the line, and I ask him: Six months in City Hall, how’s the new job? “Like an off-the-rack suit that fits perfectly,” Garcetti responds—a metaphor that perfectly befits the scion of Louis Roth & Co., one of the city’s oldest haberdashers.

Garcetti isn’t the city’s first Jewish mayor—that honor goes to a businessman named Bernard Cohn who served for two weeks as an appointed interim mayor in 1878—but he is the first to win election, and by nearly 10 points over his rival Wendy Gruel, a fellow Democrat. The son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti—best known for overseeing the prosecution of O.J. Simpson—Eric Garcetti is a product of his city: a Rhodes Scholar and fluent Spanish-speaker, he’s half-Italian and half-Mexican on his father’s side and descended from Labor Zionist shmatte moguls on his mother’s.

Garcetti is a little like a walking, talking version of the local specialty known as the Kosher Burrito: pastrami wrapped in a tortilla. Indeed, he’s proud of it: “That’s me!” he exclaimed when I made the analogy to him, back when he was just another city councilman campaigning for L.A.’s top job. Being Jewish may not help the mayor of a city of 3.8 million that is home to the most Koreans outside of Seoul, the most Iranians outside of Tehran, the most Guatemalans outside of Guatemala, and the most Samoans outside of Samoa, among myriad diasporas. “But it doesn’t hurt,” observed Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He’s in Fiorello LaGuardia mode.”

But as a politician, Garcetti is less about being all things to all people than about being his own, somewhat irreverent, self: As head of a city where walking various red carpets is a routine task, he’s known as an expert photo-bomber who has played onstage with Moby and regularly posts to Instagram.

Garcetti faces daunting challenges: a projected $242 million budget shortfall, union pay hike demands, rising homelessness, ever-worsening traffic. Oh, and there’s also the 8,000-year-old earthquake fault that runs beneath a major Hollywood residential/retail complex now under construction—a little problem city officials reportedly overlooked.

But for now, he’s still enjoying his post-election honeymoon. Like any new officeholder, he’s spent the last six months clearing the municipal decks, launching a new website that displays City Hall performance metrics, and engaging in a quick skirmish with the Water and Power union. This month, he’s been all over town doing holiday duty: switching on the Christmas tree at the Grove shopping mall, circling the menorah on the City Hall steps arm-in-arm with hora-dancing Chabad rabbis, lighting another one sponsored by the L.A. federation in the City Hall rotunda. He happily sang along as Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue, strummed a guitar for a holiday singalong. “Singing ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ in Ladino captures everything about me,” Garcetti told me. “Everyone can claim a piece of me.”

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