Photo and additional reporting by Brian Addison.
With the afterglow of the election night victory fading and the reality of being sworn into office in just over a month creeping closer, Mayor-elect Robert Garcia will be charged with delivering on the promises he campaigned on. Despite having to hit the ground running, Garcia took time to sit down with the Post in his first official interview to discuss just how he plans on actually accomplishing those tasks and turn Long Beach into the city he’s envisioned.
Post-election, Garcia wasted no time announcing his transitional team during a press conference at the Long Beach City College Liberal Arts campus. The team is composed of community members stretching across public and private sectors, including experts from the Port and non-profits, backing his promise that Garcia wanted not only the best and brightest, but a snapshot of the city to help make recommendations for hiring and future policy as Long Beach moves on from the Foster era.
“I want to make sure that the people that are volunteering, the people that are serving the city, represent not just geographically the city but also represent the diversity of the city,” Garcia said.
Moving on from Foster was one of Garcia’s promises to those who were skeptical that electing someone who had served under the so-called "Foster regime" would breed complacency. Garcia reminded voters that if they wanted another term of Foster, he's “not your guy.”
The city that Garcia inherits is also vastly dissimilar from when Foster was elected. At that time, Long Beach, like most of the country, was in the throes of financial and structural trouble that needed Foster’s rigid, staunch style of governing. While Garcia is interested in maintaining a similar course fiscally, he notes that with the city’s economy in better health, he and his staff can address new issues.
“It’s time to move on to other priorities,” Garcia said. “It’s important we bring in people from all walks of life to be involved with the city. We need to focus on the new economy, bringing in the types of businesses that can bring in new types of jobs in the tech sector, in healthcare and in the creative economy.”
The new economy Garcia envisions will include a modernized Port, which has already taken measures to "go green," replacing older high-emission vehicles with newer, cleaner models. Garcia hopes to build a quick consensus with the mostly new, mostly younger City Council as he tries to implement his plans for modernization, including a virtual City Hall, the removal of an "antiquated" communications system within the City, and making more of an effort to connect residents with the City through social media and mobile technologies. During his time on City Council, Garcia spearheaded the development of the Go Long Beach app, which permits citizens to report on and follow issues of concern, from graffiti to broken sprinklers.
Garcia sees the future of Long Beach as an incubator for technology and innovation, with the City harnessing the ideas of a booming tech scene to solve civic challenges. However, he knows that before the city can attain the tech stature that cities like Austin, San Francisco and Denver enjoy, the city faces a ground-up reinforcement that starts with safety. He believes that the footwork put in during his campaigning allowed him to attain valuable knowledge and opinions from all neighborhoods in the city that will permit him to operate as a true voice of the city.
“I want to make sure that they know that we’re there for them and we want to support them,” Garcia said of neighborhoods that still face issues with crime. “For the whole city to succeed those areas are going to have to succeed as well.”
Now that the city has spent the past few years digging itself out of financial constraints to the point of having a budget surplus, the question is now where to invest those dollars to make the city stronger. Garcia believes that safety is a multi-faceted issue that requires more than just hiring more police officers. Investing in our library system, providing job opportunities and leveling out the park-space disparity between the East and West sectors of the city are preventative measures that Garcia said will work hand-in-hand with more officers on the streets to make the city a safer place. Still, building the police force and implementing it in non-conventional ways is something Garcia is focused on.
“How do we ensure that as the force slowly grows, and it’s going to take time, that those police officers are integrated into a new community policing model?” Garcia said. “How do we get more police on bicycles? How do we get more police walking around and interacting with the community? That is a change that we have an opportunity to make now and I think it’ll be a really good change.”
He goes so far as to note that the LBPD had officers on horses as recently as a decade ago, but he emphasizes that cops on bikes are a better option for the future of Long Beach law enforcement because they engage on a more human level: it’s easier to stop cops on bikes and citizens feel less fearful of approaching officers that would otherwise seem intimidating or inaccessible while in a car.
The bike, be it used by cop or citizen, is an inherent part of Garcia's future tenure as mayor as he openly sides with most urbanists on the fact that bikes are going to become the largest growing form of transportation—and he is not looking to the Old Guard of Long Beach bicycling to take the lead. Proof of this is in his appointment of April Economides (an outspoken proponent of bicycling) and Brian Ulaszewski (the Executive Director at City Fabrick which has overseen innovative projects like Park(d) Plaza and the implementation of Armory Park) to his aforementioned transitional committee.
These types of choices are pertinent since, as more bicyclists actively engage in riding on the streets, tensions rise and the divide between drivers and bicyclists grows—for anyone wondering about this divide, read some of the comment on various Post articles about biking)—and bridging that division becomes just as pertinent. Unlike some of his counterparts, Garcia is not overtly boastful about our self-assigned moniker of being the most bike friendly city—"We’re America’s most bike friendly city—in progress," Garcia noted—but adamant that as a city that is growing, we will have growing pains, including those between bicyclists and drivers. For Garcia, this means educational and behavioral challenges for everyone, as he staunchly believes that the future of most urban centers will be more bike-focused and less car-centric.
“[We need to plan] our streets better. We need to plan our streets for the future. If you think about the past, we’ve built our streets completely centered around the car: ‘What’s best for the car?’ And when you think about the public space owned as a city, almost all of it we have turned over to our cars… How do we take that space and use it more efficiently? We have to think about pedestrians, our seniors, how can we make it safe for bicyclists, for cars, for everyone.”
In this regard, he echoes the sentiment and philosophy of our Mayor to the North, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, famous for riding into a press conference on a skateboard and pushing forward bike-friendly policies. Was the endorsement from, and election-night appearance of, Garcetti purely symbolic or was it a start to a growing relationship with the city to the north? Garcetti stated that the rivalry between Long Beach and Los Angeles is "over." How will that impact the way Garcia governs Long Beach?
Garcia acknowledged that while he does have a friendship with Garcetti that reaches back to their time as council members, his first allegiance is to Long Beach and to its Port. However, the fact that they have a working friendship will be important as the two cities, which combine to make up the biggest port in the world, try to build up a more harmonious relationship for the betterment of the region.
“I think that the great thing about Mayor Garcetti and I is that we’re actually friends,” Garcia said. “We regularly talk and text and are able to work together really well and there’s a friendship there that’ll help the bond for both of our cities. We both understand that for both of our cities to be successful we have to work together as a region. We share the same air, a lot of the same roads, the same water and resources. We have to work together.”
Growing regionally is something that Garcia thinks is imperative to the development of this city. Or as he put it, “there’s no reason why a family visiting Disneyland shouldn’t spend a few days in Long Beach and visit the aquarium and the Queen Mary.” He believes that the city should be on the short list every time a venture capital firm or any big business is going to invest or in search of a Southern California headquarters.
“We have half a million people, we have a lot of talent in Long Beach,” Garcia said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be a bigger player in the region and the country.”
But where does the new mayor-elect see Long Beach come this time next election? What kind of results will Garcia have to sell the city if he decides to run for second term as mayor?
“I see a port that’s been modernized and greener,” Garcia said. “I see us moving in the direction of technology leader and a government that’s more open. I see a city that’s put itself on a more global stage when it comes to business and attracting jobs. And I see a city that continues to be progressive on issues concerning equality and supporting people and reaching out and fostering new ideas.”