There aren’t too many California politicians left on the sidelines in the 2020 primary fight.
Virtually all of California’s statewide officials threw their support behind home state Sen. Kamala Harris’ Democratic presidential bid shortly after she jumped in the race in January. California’s senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of the few backing someone else: former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend and colleague. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not endorse in the primary.
One high profile elected official is holding out, however, and he may be the biggest endorsement of all.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti governs California’s largest city, Democrats’ equivalent of the motherlode when it comes to votes, delegates and fundraising. While he’s had his political defeats — most recently the rejection of a school funding ballot measure he’d championed — Garcetti remains a popular and well-known figure in the region.
And less than nine months from primary day, the race for Los Angeles, and California as a whole, appears to be wide open.
A new poll from the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Government Affairs found five Democrats — Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — all clumped together with between 22 and 10 percent of likely California primary voters’ support. No other candidate garnered more than 3 percent.
In Los Angeles County, Biden and Sanders are tied at 21 percent, with Warren at 18 percent and Harris and Buttigieg at 13 percent each.
Garcetti’s endorsement could make a difference, then, by grabbing headlines in a media market that’s notoriously expensive and difficult to break through. It could also open doors to additional donors and organizers in the city. For now, the mayor is keeping his options open.
”He has a lot of friends in the race, but more important to him is who can best deliver for L.A. and who will emerge as the strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump,” spokesman Yusef Robb told McClatchy.
Garcetti has organized events with five of the Democratic presidential candidates during campaign stops in Los Angeles this spring, most recently joining former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro for a rally in support of Measure EE, the parcel tax increase Angelenos voted down on June 4.
Garcetti also hosted fellow mayor Pete Buttigieg at a rally for the same measure last month, in which he praised his South Bend, Ind. counterpart as “one of America’s great mayors.” And he grabbed tacos with former Vice President Joe Biden, toured a bus depot with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and had a private coffee with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
In April, Garcetti and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spent Earth Day together touring a water recycling plant and discussing climate change. “America would be lucky to have Cory Booker as president,” Garcetti said when asked about the 2020 race at the time.
Aides and allies say the mayor, who mulled his own presidential bid, is genuinely torn over whether to endorse before California’s March 3 primary — and if so, whom. While he has a longstanding relationship with Harris, whom he went door-to-door with in Iowa for President Obama in 2008, Garcetti also has personal ties to several of the other candidates. Booker and Buttigieg are fellow Rhodes scholars and mayors, while Biden worked with him on several initiatives during the Obama administration.
“I’m personally embarrassed to have a number of great friends in this race,” Garcetti told reporters during his appearance with Booker in April.
Political observers say Garcetti’s reticence on the 2020 race also gives him something all politicians crave: leverage. “If you’re trying to maximize the value or the potency of your endorsement,” it’s “smart for him not to go along with the crowd” in endorsing Harris, said veteran Democratic consultant Garry South.
“It probably would be more influential and more powerful if he endorsed somebody other than Kamala Harris,” South added. “If he was to endorse Cory Booker or Pete Buttigieg or whoever, that’s a story, that’s kind of a national story.”
Other Los Angeles-based strategists agreed that Garcetti is one of the few political leaders who can make headlines in a state that is generally indifferent to its politicians.
“When you appear with the mayor in the second largest media market in the country and the largest in the state, it’s bound to be national news,” said Luis Vizcaino, who served as Hillary Clinton’s California press secretary during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“It would be one- or two-day headline and it could give somebody momentum,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who is now director of the Los Angeles Inititiative at U.C.L.A. In a close race, Yaroslavsky said, that “could make a difference.”
South said is shouldn’t be surprising that Harris, an Oakland native who served as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, doesn’t have an edge with voters in Los Angeles — or California, as a whole.
“It’s a huge state to try and break through in and you have to have sustained exposure to voters to really embed yourself in their heads,” said South. “She is not there yet.”
The fluid nature of the primary race gives Garcetti another reason to stay neutral for now.
“It may be one of the reasons he’s holding out,” said Yaroslavsky. “Maybe one or two of his favorites fall by the wayside and then he doesn’t have to alienate anybody.”