L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's campaign aims to strengthen his power base

Day after day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti goes through the motions of an ordinary reelection campaign.

On Sunday, he clapped to a rousing gospel choir singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” at a South L.A. church. On Monday, he joined Muslim civil rights leaders at City Hall to show solidarity on immigration. On Tuesday, he worked the lunch tables at a Jewish home for seniors in Reseda, where he bantered about the quality of pastrami at L.A.’s top delis.

But when Garcetti handed a red Valentine’s Day rose to an elderly woman who wanted to know who else was on the ballot, he was quick to dismiss his feeble competition in the March 7 election.

“A bunch of folks — nobody with any kind of big name,” Garcetti replied.

Which invites the question: Why is Garcetti darting around the city trying to boost his popularity and spending close to $2 million on advertising for a race against no viable opponent?

Because it’s largely a campaign for political clout.

Reelection by a huge margin over his 10 obscure rivals would strengthen Garcetti’s standing to run next year for governor or U.S. Senate. The mayor has not ruled out either possibility.

It also would enhance Garcetti’s dominance of L.A. politics, not least in his dealings with the City Council. Popular mayors, the axiom goes, wield more power than unpopular mayors.

Then there are bragging rights. When Antonio Villaraigosa sought reelection as L.A. mayor in 2009, he was embarrassed by winning just 56% of the vote in a race against what a former advisor called a “swarm of gadflies.”

A storm of bad publicity over Villaraigosa’s extramarital affair with a TV newscaster had marred his run for a second term. No such drama is weighing on Garcetti. But he faces challenges nonetheless, and he’s leaving little to chance.

The mayor has traveled to San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and New York to raise money for the campaign. On Wednesday, he flew to Sacramento to collect still more — and to visit with Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democrats in the Capitol.

Garcetti seems aware of his vulnerabilities. Last month, he broke the longtime mayoral tradition of holding a January news conference with the police chief to publicize crime statistics. It would have put a pre-election spotlight on the rise in both violent and property crime on his watch.

Under Villaraigosa and his predecessor, James Hahn, the event was an annual rite of self-congratulation as the numbers kept improving, in line with national trends.

“I’m doing a lot of other stuff, running around the city,” said Garcetti, who denied skipping the event for political reasons.

Garcetti also has struggled to strike the right tone on President Trump and immigration. Over and over, he has denounced Trump’s travel ban on refugees and visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations. He backed a $10-million legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation.

But the mild-mannered mayor has been less combative than other California Democrats in his anti-Trump rhetoric.

His initial resistance to calling Los Angeles a “sanctuary city” for immigrants in the U.S. illegally was stunning, said Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“We have to make sure that those who align themselves with us, or pretend to align with us, are really with us,” Villagra told an audience recently at UCLA.

Garcetti, a former U.S. Navy Reserve lieutenant, won the votes of many L.A. Republicans in 2013, and he’s seeking their support again in the election next month. His advertising stresses his work to ease business taxes and create jobs.

The city’s reliance on federal money compels Garcetti to calibrate his attacks on Trump. The president has threatened to deny grants to cities like Los Angeles that limit cooperation with immigration enforcement.

“President Trump has been very helpful in areas like the Olympics and infrastructure, and I have an obligation to represent my city and get resources and programs that help my people,” Garcetti said. Los Angeles is a finalist for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Also challenging for the mayor are black voters, who largely snubbed him in 2013. In Jefferson Park on Sunday, Garcetti joined a crowd singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at a reception of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Garcetti told them he was a “proud lifetime member” of the NAACP.

Earlier, at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Adams-Normandie, Garcetti paid tribute to black protesters of the civil rights movement. “The struggle of African Americans is everybody’s struggle,” he told parishioners.

On a riser behind him, a singer in the choir was wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, a reminder that protesters have accused Garcetti of tolerating police mistreatment of African Americans. The mayor denies the charge.

The First AME pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, lamented LAPD shootings of African Americans and suggested in an interview that Garcetti “rekindle his efforts to become sensitized to the voice of the community.”

Also at the service was Villaraigosa, now running for governor. He and Garcetti greeted each other warmly on the front steps of the church. But the mayor now poses a political threat to Villaraigosa. If Garcetti runs for governor, the two inevitably would fight for the same voters in the L.A. area — a blessing for other candidates.

“I take him at his word that he’s not running for governor,” said Villaraigosa, ignoring Garcetti’s refusal to rule out the possibility.

Historically, voters elsewhere in California tend to spurn mayors and former mayors of Los Angeles. Richard Riordan, Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty all lost campaigns for governor.

“There’s a huge amount of hostility and resentment toward this city,” said Garry South, a Los Angeles campaign strategist.

In Reseda, Garcetti supporter Joy Bernstein, 82, urged the mayor to look beyond California and run for president.

“I like what I do now,” Garcetti told her as nurses and residents jostled their way into photos with the mayor. “But you never know.”

@finneganLAT

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this article.

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