LOS ANGELES – Not long ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti looked like he was going places. The two-term Democrat who considered a 2020 White House run became part of Joe Biden’s inner circle, then emerged as a widely discussed possibility to join the president-elect’s Cabinet.
That isn't going to happen.
Garcetti disclosed Thursday he had taken his name out of consideration earlier this week, saying the raging coronavirus crisis made it impossible for him to step away. “This is a time to lead, and not to leave,” he said, while also revealing he's quarantining after his 9-year-old daughter tested positive for the coronavirus. Garcetti tested negative.
The announcement marks an unexpected fall for the mayor, who said he was being courted by Biden to come to Washington, though he did not specify for what position.
It also confirmed what was becoming increasingly obvious. Six weeks after Election Day, Biden had filled most of the prized administration jobs. When Biden announced his choice for health secretary this month, it was another Californian with Los Angeles ties who was picked: state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Recent headlines haven't have been helping Garcetti, who has seen his popularity slip after winning re-election in 2017 with more than 80% of the vote.
One of his former deputy mayors was indicted on corruption charges in an ongoing federal investigation at City Hall. Black Lives Matter protesters for days banged drums outside his official residence to urge Biden not to choose Garcetti for a post. And the mayor is getting drawn into a lawsuit that alleges a former top staffer sexually harassed one of the mayor's police bodyguards while Garcetti ignored it or laughed it off. The mayor denies the claims.
Meanwhile, hospital beds are running short as coronavirus cases soar, the city’s murder rate is spiking, a homeless crisis continues unabated and layoffs could be coming for hundreds of police officers and other city workers because of budget cuts.
“So many things are happening he can’t control,” Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said prior to the mayor's announcement.
“The timing is unfortunate,” Regalado said. “Biden’s team reads the paper.”
Garcetti didn't make clear when he made his decision, but several coveted positions seen to square with his big-city credentials, such as transportation or housing secretary or domestic climate adviser, were recently taken.
For transportation, Biden turned to a different mayor: former presidential candidate Buttigieg, who formerly led South Bend, Indiana.
For now, while others prepare to run the nation, the 49-year-old Garcetti will be helping plan the scaled-down party to welcome Biden to the White House, while dealing with the pandemic at home.
On the day Becerra was picked as health secretary, Garcetti was named one of several co-chairs for Biden’s inaugural committee, a conspicuously less prestigious post. Garcetti earlier was one of Biden’s national campaign co-chairs and served on the committee that vetted his pool of vice presidential contenders.
Biden's transition did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden has built a historically diverse Cabinet, so the mayor’s Italian-Jewish-Mexican roots didn’t stand out for special consideration. Meanwhile, the administration looked sufficiently stocked with Californians: Along with Becerra, home-state Sen. Kamala Harris is set to become vice president.
Other Biden nominees have California connections, too: former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the choice for energy secretary, lives in Oakland, California, and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
“They like the spread around the goodies,” Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said in an email.
Garcetti, an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar who has spent two decades in city government either as mayor or a city councilman, spent months considering his own presidential run before bowing out in early 2019. He raised his national profile by campaigning and raising money for Democratic candidates and state parties around the country.
When he announced he wouldn't become a candidate, he said "you should finish the job that you set out to do.”
His term ends in 2022. He had spoken only elliptically about the possibility of going to Washington but, until Thursday, hadn’t shut down speculation he might join Biden.
He'll start 2021 in a witness chair after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge Thursday ordered the mayor to be deposed no later than Jan. 30 in the sexual harassment lawsuit against former Garcetti adviser Rick Jacobs.
In October, Garcetti said he had cut ties with Jacobs, his former deputy chief of staff and longtime political confidant, and again denied he had witnessed anything inappropriate. Jacobs has disputed the allegations.
The federal conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges against former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan also raise the possibility of embarrassing disclosures for Garcetti.
Had a nomination come, Garcetti’s progressive portfolio could have made him a target in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Los Angeles declared itself a so-called sanctuary city on his watch, and LA has its own version of the Green New Deal, which envisions most cars running on electricity and most power coming from solar or other renewable sources. Garcetti also co-founded the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda to advance steps to slow global warming.
He has come under harsh criticism from Black Lives Matter, which held a string of protests outside the Getty House, the mayor's official residence near downtown. Activists chanted “Block Garcetti” and said his record on transportation, homelessness and policing disqualified him from a Biden administration job.
There would certainly have been an image problem for Garcetti if he stepped away with the city dealing with the pandemic, a huge budget gap and a wounded economy.
Garcetti said as much during an online virus briefing Thursday. “I need to be here now,” he said.
Still, it remains possible Garcetti will join the administration at a later point, perhaps after he leaves City Hall.
“Joe Biden has told me for the last few years that he was very interested in me coming to Washington,” Garcetti said. “There were things on the table for me.”