Small Hours: Garcetti, walking the talk


LOS ANGELES TIMES

June 25, 2006

By James Verini

ARENA is a big, loud nightclub in Hollywood, not the kind of place you’d expect to find your city councilman, much less the president of the Los Angeles City Council. But there Eric Garcetti was on a recent evening, looking typically polished and ardent. He had just delivered a speech to a crowd of Rotarians who were using the club for the night, extolling the “sheer human diversity” of his district, the 13th, and Garcetti was on his way out of the club. It was almost 9 p.m. and he had to get to another party.

Before Garcetti could reach the door, however, he heard his name shouted out — “Eriiic!” — and turned to see a bear of a man in headphones, calling from behind the turntable booth. Like pretty much everyone else Garcetti would come into contact with that night, even the Arena DJ knew the councilman by name.

Could there be a more fitting representative for Hollywood, the place and the idea, than Garcetti? Handsome, approachable, with an air of boyish honesty, he can sound like a Frank Capra-conceived idealist. Then there are the finely tailored Hugo Boss suits and the nonstop charm and poker face, all of which can make him seem more like a CAA agent.

“People need to see that you’re connected with the leadership,” Garcetti said about his reputation as someone who is often out on the town. “Whether that be political leadership, like the mayor, or cultural leadership — celebrities — or the business leadership.”

He has two degrees from Columbia, and let’s not forget the Rhodes scholarship. That Garcetti, an Encino boy, a Harvard-Westlake School graduate, the son of former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, didn’t set off to make millions on Wall Street or go straight to Washington but chose instead to return to L.A., to live in Echo Park no less, may be an indication of the rise of a new generation of civic-minded native Angeleno elite. That he has been able to get so much done so quickly is a testament to the reviving fortunes of the place that is Hollywood.

Garcetti, who was elected to the council in 2001 when he was 30, draws frequent comparison to another Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton. True, that is the political equivalent of naming the next Marlon Brando — you’ve heard it 200 times — but watching Garcetti in action, thoughts of the ex-prez do inevitably come up. Garcetti has just got that thing, that extra-verbal thing (though the guy can talk).

Like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, the joke still goes, will attend the opening of a door, Garcetti is comfortable having his persona on regular public display. All of his council colleagues, of course, keep full schedules, nights included. But Garcetti’s evening rounds, in part because of the character of his district, seem to take in an endless procession of bars and clubs, plays and concerts, museum and gallery openings. Indeed, he and Villaraigosa were spotted out together at L’Scorpion in Hollywood recently, drinking good tequila and talking shop.

“I can’t do my job if I can’t see the nightlife and see what’s going on at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard,” he said, not unreasonably. But spend just a little time with him and you see that whether he’s working or not — never mind that politicians are always working — Garcetti just likes being out.

“He’s one of those people who draws energy from other people, instead of losing it, like most of us,” said Ally Miller, a longtime friend.

After leaving Arena, Garcetti took off the jacket of his dark blue Boss suit and carefully laid it in the back of his electric Toyota RAV4. As his communications director, Josh Kamensky, drove to the next party, Garcetti checked election results on his Treo — it was the night of the state primaries — and gestured out the window to various points of 13th District interest.

“Per square foot, that’s the best-selling Sears in the country — can you believe that?” he said, as the Sears store in East Hollywood passed by.

The 13th district stretches from Elysian Park west to La Brea, and from the foot of the Hollywood Hills south to Wilshire Center, a footprint that includes the Hollywood Boulevard corridor that in the last several years has enjoyed a major face-lift. Garcetti has been a chief surgeon of that face-lift, helping to attract hoteliers, restaurateurs and club owners to the neighborhood’s once ramshackle streets.

“The first step was the clubs — bringing people back to Hollywood,” Garcetti said during another night out, this one involving dinner and a play in Silver Lake with a group of eight. A few nights before that he’d been at the Rauschenberg opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was a few nights after he led a round of L.A. trivia at Taix in Silver Lake. “Now we’re focused on restaurants and housing and a 24-hour presence,” he said. “Usually you bring back the daylight life, then the nightlife follows. Here we’ve done the reverse.”

“He gets it,” said Richard Heyman, a developer behind the restaurants Hollywood and Vine and Memphis. “Hollywood is the biggest brand name in the world, but we’ve never had a sense of place. He’s helping with that.”

Garcetti has managed to both quell opposition from neighborhood councils and win the allegiance of the new Hollywood business community. He also has a good relationship with the LAPD, a fact that seems to baffle liberal observers. He’s had to live down the reputation of his father, who as D.A. created the rollout unit to investigate police and incurred the department’s lasting wrath.

“He didn’t give me any advice when I ran,” Garcetti said of his father, speaking over the phone a few weeks later. Gil Garcetti went down in a 2000 reelection bid just as his son was hitting the campaign trail. (Eric’s mother, Sukey Roth, who is Jewish — Gil is Mexican American — ran her family’s charity, the Roth Family Foundation, until recently.) “But he did say, ‘Haven’t you learned anything?’ He meant it was a tough life, holding office. Waking up every day wondering if the newspapers will be nice to you.”

The worst thing you will hear about Garcetti is that he and his staff are too intellectually arrogant for the back-scratching clubhouse that is L.A. politics.

Indeed, Garcetti has succeeded in creating an image that sounds almost too good to be true. He taught international affairs and public policy at Occidental College and USC before entering politics, is fluent in Spanish, plays jazz piano and goes to San Diego once a month to train in the Naval Reserve. He commemorated Earth Day 2005 in an Inuit village in far northern Canada with Salma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal to raise awareness about global warning. He maintains a blog and hosts a cooking show, “Flavors of L.A.,” on Channel 35.

And, of course, there is the always jampacked evening schedule. Garcetti is usually out with Amy Wakeland, his “partner,” as everyone — including Garcetti himself — calls her. The two met in the Rhodes program in 1994. They live together in a postmodern but warmly furnished house on a hillside in Echo Park. Near the front door, encased in transparent polyurethane, he keeps the shoes he wore while knocking on doors during his first campaign, which Wakeland helped run.

But at 1 a.m. on the night of the state primaries, Garcetti, without Wakeland, was sitting at a booth in the penthouse bar at the Westin Bonaventure hotel downtown. He had stopped by two other election-night parties, one in the Valley for state Senate candidate Alex Padilla, one in Lincoln Park for Kevin de Leon, who is running for state Assembly.

Now Garcetti was sipping an aged Scotch and reminiscing — about a pub in Oxford, then about Oxford parties, then about the party after he won his own first election. “It was at Les Deux,” he said. “Everybody was there. I danced with Ben Kingsley. He wasn’t there for me, he was just there with two hot women. But it was great. Ben Kingsley’s here! What a day! I love democracy!”