At the moment, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti doesn’t have time to think about anything but battling fires in Southern California. But before the flames threatened his city, Garcetti was spending a lot of time out of it.
He traveled to Wisconsin in June, where he spoke at the state’s Democratic Party convention; New Hampshire in August, where he helped campaign for Manchester mayoral candidate Joyce Craig; and Indiana in November, where he attended the inaugural meeting of a nonprofit for investing in innovation called Accelerator for America.
Trips like this — coupled with Garcetti himself hinting at a run for president — have some experts wondering: Could a mayor mount a credible campaign in 2020?
Some believe he has a decent shot.
“In normal times, a mayor running for president would be probably be seen as foolish. But these aren’t normal times,” Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, told CNN. “Garcetti’s increasingly been getting nationwide attention, also international attention on the climate change fight. There are a lot of things in his favor for possibly heading in that direction.”
Others remain skeptical of a politician jumping from City Hall to the White House.
“He [Garcetti] would be a long shot,” John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government and politics at Claremont McKenna College, told CNN. “Outside of Southern California, very few people know who he is.”
Garcetti, 46, was coy about the future in an interview posted earlier this week and recorded before the wild fires. He told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN, that he subscribes to the notion that “you better just do good work and stop thinking about your own future, and the next step will take care of itself.”
But he added: “Eyes wide open, it’s important to prepare for the future.”
From mayor to president?
No sitting mayor has ever been elected president, but Garcetti hopes that someone — even if it’s not him — is.
“I hope, even if I never did, that we have mayors that run for president because they are ready,” Garcetti told Axelrod.
He touted fellow mayors — and 2020 prospects — New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as worthy candidates for higher office.
Garcetti, who is of both Jewish and Mexican descent, comes from a political background: He is the son of Gil Garcetti, the district attorney who prosecuted O.J. Simpson in the infamous double murder trial of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
His “diverse background could provide him with an unusually broad appeal: He is a Jewish Hispanic with an Italian surname,” Pitney said.
Regalado added he thinks Garcetti is a candidate that could appeal to Democrats, including young Democrats who are far left (“the Berniecrats”) and “old timer establishment” voters.
But making such a big political leap isn’t easy. Many ex-mayors — including former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 — have tried and failed.
“One challenge is that he [Garcetti] has a full-time job that could demand his immediate return to the city at any time,” Pitney said. “For instance, it would look bad if he were campaigning in New Hampshire while the northern part of Los Angeles was facing huge wildfires. Also, opponents could blame him for anything that goes wrong in the city, ranging from the mundane (traffic) to the tragic (police shootings). He would also have to contend with the reputation of Los Angeles as a haven for bohemian social values.”
Joel Kotkin, author and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism, echoed that mayors “don’t necessarily appeal to suburban, much less rural voters, who together make up the vast majority.”
Flirting with a run
Garcetti’s Axelrod interview came just several weeks after The New York Times ran a story focusing around Garcetti’s 2020 prospects.
“There are 23 states that have a population smaller than Los Angeles,” Garcetti told the Times, again hinting at the possibility of running.
But the Times story wasn’t the first instance in which Garcetti fueled speculation about a presidential bid.
Since being elected mayor, Garcetti has garnered national attention for advocating for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and the Paris climate accord, following news that President Donald Trump would end DACA — unless Congress comes up with a plan to save it — and withdraw the US from the Paris agreement.
In October, Garcetti ruled out running for governor in the race to replace current California Gov. Jerry Brown. That same month, Garcetti hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to support her re-election campaign in 2018.
“There’s no obvious place for him to go in terms of higher office,” Regalado said of Garcetti’s prospects. “And he would like that national stage, there’s no question about it.”
Earlier this year, Garcetti was reelected as mayor in a landslide. He helped Los Angeles land the bid for the 2028 Olympics. He launched Accelerator for America.
There’s Garcetti’s robust travel schedule, which has taken him across the US to areas that many aspirational presidential candidates frequent.
“His visibility has risen considerably over the last year,” Regalado added.
And that visibility — per some experts — is what could help him pave the way to the White House in 2020.