Analysis: Eric Garcetti's Conundrum

PHOTO: Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles Wednesday, May 22, 2013.Nick Ut/AP
Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Garcetti says he's going to focus like a "laser beam" on the economy when he takes office July 1, speaking the the day after he defeated city Controller Wendy Greuelby a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.

The long race to succeed Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles came to an on Wednesday when Eric Garcetti, a young Democrat city council member with a long and impressive resume and a promising future, defeated city controller Wendy Greuel by an eight-point margin.

Garcetti's life is so full of precocious (and politically useful) accomplishments that it almost plays as a parody of the ideal career of someone gearing up for political stardom from, literally, elementary school. Garcetti is a Rhodes scholar, human rights expert, gifted pianist and composer of musical theatre. He's an environmental activist and amateur photographer. He's also a foster parent. Oh, and he break dances quite well.

During the campaign, Garcetti managed to present himself as a sort of "transethnic," "transreligious" politician: he's Jewish but also has some Catholic background on his father's side; he's white but also claims to be Latino (his grandfather emigrated as a young child from Mexico after Garcetti's great-grandfather was killed during the Mexican revolution). He speaks Spanish perfectly. All in all, Garcetti seems to be a man made for modern politics, at a time when a leader needs to appeal, as effortlessly as possible, to a wide range of demographics.

The question for Garcetti now is how he will build what appears to be a promising political career that will begin, at the age of 42, with the mayoralty of the nation's second largest city. It will not be easy. The young mayor will face a looming budget crisis that could worsen if negotiations with public employees and others don't end well.

Even though he's a Democrat, Garcetti has long favored pension reform. Garcetti's stance earned him the opposition of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), whose leader is the feared and respected Maria Elena Durazo, known for her willingness to wield the union's political clout at a moment's notice.

On election night, Durazo appeared cheerful next to Garcetti's rival, Greuel. During the campaign, Durazo openly justified the millions of dollars spent by some of the unions on Greuel's behalf. When I interviewed her a few days ago, she seemed completely at ease with the role unions' money had on the campaign. This is why, after the past few months, Garcetti should not have any problem finding the personal and political incentive to fight the union's immense power in City Hall.

But the question remains: will he fight? To antagonize labor goes against the Democratic party's most basic playbook, even more so for a man with an open and justifiably sunny career path ahead. The problem for Garcetti, though, is that, if he decides to avoid trouble with the unions, his four-year term will be remembered not only for its inefficiency but also for its lack of courage. And political careers can be built on prudence, but rarely on cowardice. The budding politician's conundrum: ¿courage or cynicism? We shall see.