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A low-key mayor reflecting the diversity of Los Angeles


LOS ANGELES – He is Jewish. He is Latino. He can break dance and play jazz piano. He speaks nearly impeccable Spanish. He has talked longingly about growing his own vegetables and maybe even raising his own chickens. He lives on this city’s hip east side.

Three months into office, Mayor Eric Garcetti seems to embody a host of ethnic, ideological and cultural strains that are transforming Los Angeles. At the same time, he is avoiding any temptation of red carpet glamour here, a striking change from his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who came in as mayor riding a powerful wave of popularity but left with decidedly less regard.

"In some ways everything I have done has prepared me for this job," Garcetti said recently in his still mostly barren City Hall office, which he plans to decorate with local historic memorabilia. "Governing Los Angeles is all about cultural literacy – nobody can be completely literate across the board here, but if you don’t have some understanding of many of those cultures, you will be left behind."

This is not to say he does not have an acute sensitivity to how the city he is now leading is defined, a city of "the best storytellers and story makers in the whole world," as he put it, but also a place that "outsiders love to caricature badly."

Since his inauguration in July, Garcetti has spent most of his time assembling his team of managers and negotiating a contract with the public employees’ union he bitterly fought with in his campaign.

It is a stark contrast from Villaraigosa, who embraced the national spotlight when he became the city’s first Latino mayor in modern history in 2005. But locally, the spotlight often turned into a glare, as he faced criticism that he paid more attention to cultivating his image than governing the city.

Wary of facing similar attacks, Garcetti has largely focused on the more mundane tasks. But in many ways, he will need to rely on his personality to accomplish some of the most vexing problems he faces, like figuring out how to improve a still-sluggish economy and close the city’s yawning budget gap. In some sense, part of his job as mayor is being cheerleader in chief, something that will require him to excite residents in a way that focusing on potholes may not.

"In a lot of ways Eric really breaks the mold of who we expect our mayor to be," said Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "He is totally comfortable about who he is – as Latino, as Jewish, as whatever – as only an L.A. guy could be. And he knows how to salsa."

Garcetti, 42, is the youngest mayor ever elected to lead this city of 4 million, and his tastes, too, are a signal of new changes. For decades, the political power has centered on the city’s wealthy west side, but that has shifted in recent years as real estate prices have climbed in trendy eastern sections of the city. A home Garcetti bought and renovated in Echo Park, a once-gritty neighborhood that has become a hipster enclave, was featured in Dwell magazine.

"He’s somebody who derives energy from a lot of different worlds," said Rick Jacobs, a top adviser for Garcetti who raised money for an independent expenditure campaign during the election. "Arguably L.A. is the most global city right now and we have the most global mayor. We’ve got this bilingual mayor for a multilingual city."

In a place teeming with immigrants from Korea and China, Armenia and Iran, Guatemala and Mexico, distinctions are often crucial. After 10 years on the City Council representing a district that was roughly 60 percent Latino, Garcetti can speak with ease about the particular distinctions between Mexicans from Oaxaca and those from Chihuahua.

His father, Gil Garcetti, who as district attorney in the 1990s prosecuted O.J. Simpson, is the son of Mexican immigrants who trace their roots to Italy. Eric Garcetti’s mother’s family came from Russia in the early 20th century. Both families settled in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles, long a magnet for immigrants.

But while many of the city’s most powerful Latino politicians, including Villaraigosa, were raised in such immigrant enclaves, Garcetti grew up in the well-heeled San Fernando Valley. Early in the campaign, he faced pointed comments from other elected officials, including the speaker of the state Assembly, that questioned his Latino credentials. Even now, without the pressure of campaigning, he is not given to wax philosophical about his identity. "There was all this craziness about, ‘What are you?’" he said. "I am what I am, as Popeye would say. I think we are all tired of that conversation."

He and his wife, Amy Wakeland, have a daughter, Maya, nearly 2. So far, Wakeland has stayed out of public view. The pair met while they were both Rhodes scholars, and many refer to her as a "secret weapon." One still-unanswered question is whether the family will move out of their modern $1.4 million Silver Lake home to the official mayor’s residence at Getty House, a traditional Tudor mansion in the heart of Hancock Park, a neighborhood associated with old money and little of the hip urban pizazz for which his current enclave is known. ("It’s not exactly our style," he allowed.)

In his campaign, Garcetti held his district out as an example of the kind of growth that should happen throughout the city – new high-rise buildings; more public transportation; renovated, sprawling parks. But he drew scorn from unions who said he gave in to developers, and from business leaders who criticized his efforts to enact living wage ordinances.

For the most part, Garcetti seems perfectly happy to draw on his youthful demeanor and extol the virtues of new trends. He talks about bitcoins (the digital currency) and AMAs – as the "ask me anything" conversations on the social news site Reddit are called. As a city councilman, he wrote a personal blog on Slate and has operated his own Twitter account for years. Since taking office as mayor, he has shocked and delighted residents by responding directly to the complaints they have tweeted.

So perhaps it should not have been surprising to see the mayor take the stage during a small concert in Hollywood last week with Moby, who also lives in Silver Lake. The musician met Garcetti at a fundraiser early in his run for mayor and soon became an ardent supporter; he introduced him to the audience as "the current mayor but future president."

Wearing a fitted black T-shirt, Garcetti surprised the crowd as he played keyboard for the final song of the first set, including a two-minute solo.

"Fun, but a little scary," is how Garcetti described it a few minutes later, standing on the roof deck of the Fonda Theatre, the lights of the Hollywood high-rises twinkling behind him.

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