Opinion: Like him or not, Mayor Robert Garcia’s political star is rising

Following Mayor Robert Garcia’s very brief appearance on last week’s Democratic National Convention, Jill Cowan of the New York Times asserted that it “solidified Mr. Garcia’s place as a representative of the Democratic Party of the future.”

Before you sum up the few seconds Garcia spoke, consider that Cowan’s claim may not be an understatement. Whether you like or dislike him, you can’t doubt Garcia’s ambitions—and finesse—to ascend the political ladder.

As a youngster roaming Cal State Long Beach, he was voted in as student body president. After, he served as chief-of-staff to a Republican councilman, switched parties and then won the critical 1st District seat on the Long Beach City Council. He later became vice mayor and is now on his second term as mayor for a city whose population size rivals that of Miami.

Clearly, his political career has no near end in sight. People who know Garcia know him to be highly strategic with a need to know the fine print on matters impacting key races and constant polling on policies at all times, year-round. Again, whether you like him or not, he has an immense talent for making sure the chess pieces end up where he wants them to.

He holds a winning streak for his reimagined Long Beach: voter-approved charter amendments, various tax and funding measures, his almost-perfect touch for endorsing winning candidates, and more.

Now, given the Democrats’ Biden-Harris presidential ticket, Garcia is likely surveying his next practical wins across the political chessboard.

If Biden-Harris win

Media are rumbling about Garcia possibly filling Kamala Harris’ U.S. Senate seat should she and Joe Biden pull off a win in November. Insiders even say a job may be waiting for Garcia in a Biden administration.

Garcia is on Biden’s Latino Leadership Committee, after all, and the two apparently spent a lot of time together during the former vice president’s visit to Long Beach.

Garcia’s “in” on Harris’ seat is the fact that two are close. She swore him in as mayor in 2014 and he was co-chair for Harris’ California campaign during her presidential run.

“Over time, we just became friends and [Harris] supported me when I ran for mayor,” he recently told Fox news. “I’ve been supporting her campaigns ever since. I consider her a mentor and a friend.”

Still, vying for the Senate seat would be an uphill climb for Garcia—who has usually won his pawns step-by-step. That’s because, per state law, the decision to fill Harris’ vacancy would be up to Gov. Newsom.

Garcia is up against other big-name Latinx contenders, some of them closer to Newsom and each of them eager to make history as the first Latinx senator to represent California in Congress. Money’s going to matter, too. The progressive political action committee Latino Victory just announced a five figure media campaign for Newsom to pick California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Newsom, who issued licenses for same-sex marriages one month after taking mayoral office in 2004, also has a penchant for legacy. He may want to double the opportunity in front of him by picking a Latinx woman and keep Congress at its historic gender ratio, something congressional Democrats have been celebrating in the face of the Trumpian climate.

If Biden-Harris lose

So, maybe a queer-friendly port city mayor can move up the political ladder in more practical steps, by becoming lieutenant governor, and then taking hold of the governorship?

Newsom did exactly that.

Last year, Garcia formed a “Robert Garcia for Lt. Governor 2026” committee, which he told the Press-Telegram didn’t reflect his future ambitions but was to simply park money.

In the same article, though, former Long Beach mayor and confidante Bob Foster said that Garcia has eyed the lieutenant governor position as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. “He wants to be the person responsible,” Foster said.

The Secretary of State website reports Garcia’s committee is still active and receiving donations from various Long Beach bigwigs (political and city officials, industry leaders, unions, real estate). Whatever comes of November’s high-stakes election, it would be Garcian for him to leverage relationships to climb the ranks of the Democratic Party on a state or national scale sometime soon upon seeing a winnable opportunity.

During the presidential primaries, Garcia had said he and his husband would support women, endorsing Kamala Harris for president and door-knocking for her in Iowa. When Harris dropped out, he didn’t jump to support the next woman, Elizabeth Warren. The endorsement of Long Beach’s mayor would go to Joe Biden. And to now see the Democratic ticket as a Biden-Harris pack shows Garcia’s impeccable foresight in political strategy.

But all the pragmatism may also be beginning to taper off, if just a bit.

His Measure A extension passed by a mere 16 votes—probably the closest he’s been to a major political loss while in office.

A current recall effort against Garcia has also gained some light traction in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter uprisings in Long Beach. Even if unsuccessful, the stigma of a recall can shadow his future campaigns as he vies for higher offices.

Adding to the recall effort’s momentum is that Garcia’s recently proposed budget calls for about $10.2 million in cuts to the police department, which activists decry as way too little given the struggle they took on during a pandemic for meaningful reform.

While quite ambitious in its vision, actual funding for the city’s racial reconciliation plan thus far tops $3.2 million to begin undoing decades of racism. Meanwhile, the institution at the center of community rage—the Long Beach Police Department—is on track to receive $260 million.

Notably, national media hardly touched upon the local racial unrest unfolding under his watch. The Times only lightly asked him about it (Democrats right now, clearly, are not in a position to air that kind of dirty laundry in public).

If Garcia wants to leave Long Beach office soon to join the Senate or Biden administration, that gives him limited time to better fund more tangible racial justice policies that vulnerable Long Beachers resonate with; a sound antiracist reform he can carry with him as legacy.

But there is another ghost that keeps reappearing for Garcia—his Republican past, something many media actually did ask him about (maybe because it’s high up on his Wikipedia page).

In 2005, 27-year-old Garcia founded the Long Beach Young Republicans, served as chief-of-staff for Republican Councilman Frank Colonna, and managed Colonna’s failed 2006 mayoral run. In 2007, Garcia switched parties, and won the 1st district seat two years later.

Perceived failure in racial justice—along with his Republican past—can haunt him later, especially as California’s highly-diverse and woke Generation Z grows to become of voting age to decide Garcia’s political fate. They’re only going to get better with the memes and record digging.

Garcia’s past makes clear his future will be a busy one in politics. Will the years of pragmatism soon prompt his first major political loss? It’s too soon to say, given the unpredictability of the times, but Garcia will sure continue to play chess as hard as he can in a party that more and more centers diverse identities.

Given Garcia’s rise in the Democratic Party and in the national landscape, it behooves both his supporters and the discontented to carry his record to that landscape, too.

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