Politics

Selling Hollywood to the Heartland

Eric Garcetti is getting an early jump on 2020 in Iowa. Can the L.A. mayor make history in a crowded field?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks onstage during the Alliance for Children's Rights 26th Annual Dinner on March 28 in Beverly Hills, California.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks onstage during the Alliance for Children’s Rights 26th Annual Dinner on March 28 in Beverly Hills, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

ALTOONA, Iowa—Eric Garcetti wanted a do-over. “Well, not a do-over,” he clarified, “but I thought of a better way to say it.” It being an answer to the question of why the mayor of Los Angeles was in Iowa. “I’m not here looking for a new job for me, I’m looking for more new jobs for Americans,” Garcetti told reporters after touring a carpenters’ union training facility in this Des Moines suburb on Friday.

With roughly two years until the next presidential election kicks off here, Garcetti spent the weekend road-testing his presidential pitch to Iowans. Over the course of a busy two days, Garcetti toured downtown Des Moines with the city’s mayor, attended an LGBTQ gala, had breakfast with firefighters coming off the overnight shift, and spoke to a pair of county Democratic groups roughly 170 miles apart, glad-handing local leaders and workshopping his pitch to some future caucus-goers along the way. “I’m not just in the geographic heart of this country, I’m in the moral center,” he told a Saturday morning meetup of Democrats at a bar in Des Moines, to approving cheers from the 75-person crowd. Some of his material still needed some work. “Don’t get scared by a tweet, go hit the street,” he said moments later to a smattering of forced applause and a few cringes.

Garcetti is getting an early start on 2020 in the hopes of selling his unique personal story and his executive experience in L.A. as transferable to places like Iowa, and as distinctly different from the rest of what’s expected to be a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls. While Garcetti took great pains to make clear he hasn’t officially decided to run for president, and he occasionally insisted he was just here to listen, he has already conceded he’s considering a White House bid. Garcetti has tried to get a head start on his potential rivals with early trips to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and to address his unconventional resume: No sitting mayor has ever made the leap from City Hall to the White House without at least another stop in between, and none have even come particularly close to winning a major-party nomination. To hear Garcetti tell it, though, that’s not the liability it seems.

“Every campaign is a new campaign, and everyone makes the mistake of running the last one,” he said in an interview on Saturday afternoon. “No African American could ever become president ’til one was; no reality star could be president until one is.” After Donald Trump, he said, voters want a candidate who is unconventional but not so unconventional that they come without any governing experience. “I think in this next round,” Garcetti predicted about 2020, “people are going to be looking for unconventional candidates again, but ones that aren’t just about words, but deeds.”

As the second-term mayor of the second-largest city in the United States, Garcetti is pitching himself as a can-do executive in contrast to the gridlock and name-calling in Washington. On Friday, as if to make the point crystal clear, he even donned a hard hat and a pair of safety glasses to greet reporters at the union training facility. (The blue-collar props were curiously absent a few minutes later, when he met with actual carpenters and their apprentices on the union floor.) During his Saturday morning speech, he talked about how as mayor, he’s in charge of the city’s transit system and its municipal utility, and he boasted of accomplishments he billed as “progressive but practical,” like raising the minimum wage and making the first year of community college free for eligible high-school graduates. “In Los Angeles,” he said, “we didn’t just talk about it.”

The hope for Garcetti is that perhaps he can split the difference between a crowded field of elected officials who serve in Washington—which could include a half-dozen senators and a former vice president—and a true political outsider from the world of business or entertainment like, say, an investor-turned-environmentalist or an outspoken NBA owner. It’s the kind of pitch that governors have traditionally made, with some success, and Garcetti could benefit from the fact there aren’t many Democratic executives to choose from at the moment. Given the size of Los Angeles, Garcetti can claim to be on equal footing with most of them, anyway. With a population of roughly 4 million, he counts more constituents than the governors of nearly two-dozen states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, and he has nearly twice as many constituents as Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he rode that experience to the White House.

Garcetti, an Ivy League–educated Rhodes scholar, is a fourth-generation Angeleno with a compelling family story that cuts across some of the identity divides within the Democratic Party. As he put it during his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “I’m just your average Mexican-American Jewish Italian.” His mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and his Italian–Mexican paternal grandfather was brought to the United States as a child and went on to fight in World War II. “I guess you could say he was a Dreamer before we had that term,” Garcetti said Saturday.

Garcetti is now in his fifth year as mayor, after 12 years on the Los Angeles City Council, but he is still mostly unknown outside the West Coast, and he went largely unrecognized while walking the streets of a trendy Des Moines neighborhood on Friday afternoon. But party activists appear to be intrigued by his candidacy. He received a warm welcome on Saturday from the kind of Iowans who trek across town on a cold and wet weekend morning to get an early look at a White House hopeful. Roughly 75 people packed into a cash-only Irish bar in Des Moines at 11 a.m. to hear him deliver brief remarks. Many arrived with only cursory knowledge of the mayor of a city a half-continent away, but they were quick with their applause and forgiving of some minor stumbles.

“You know, he’s still kinda working through the kinks,” said Marcus Coenen, a 28-year-old who was sitting with his wife at a table in the back of the bar, near where someone had to yell for Garcetti to speak up. But Coenen and a half-dozen others I spoke to after the event all told me they were impressed with what they heard. They liked how Garcetti threaded in stories about his own life and family to make his points, and they seemed to genuinely appreciate Garcetti’s weeklong effort to draw parallels between his home city and their home state by talking about everything from renewable energy production to the fact that Long Beach was once known as “Iowa by the Sea” as a result of all the Iowans who moved there. “If you can connect L.A. and Iowa the way he did,” said Rich Gradoville, 58, “then there’s a whole lot of country in between and to the east that you can connect every bit as easily.”

Whether Garcetti can muscle his way to the front of a pack that could include more established heavyweights like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren is still very much unclear. There’s also the chance that other mayors will decide to run and muddle the uniqueness of his message. Which is all the more reason for Garcetti to hog the spotlight while he can. In Iowa, those who came out to see him were more than happy to give him their full attention and said they would keep him in mind as the race develops. “Anybody should run for president if they want to,” said Charles Richards, a sixtysomething man who had come out to see Garcetti on Saturday morning. “And we should consider anybody running for president.” Garcetti, and other long shots like him, will have to hope they really mean it.

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.