With mayor highlighted at Democratic National Convention, Long Beach sees a chance to raise its profile

When Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia takes the virtual stage as one of 17 people to give Tuesday night’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, he’ll be representing California as the state’s only keynote speaker.

He’ll also represent Long Beach as a city in transition and he’ll represent the LGBTQ community as a openly gay man. He’ll represent the Latino community as an immigrant from Peru.

It’s an exciting time for the 42-year-old rising star in the Democratic party. But it’s also a time of enormous pressure.

The mayor faces a city still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the civil unrest from the nation’s police brutality protests. And in the past three weeks, he lost both his mother Gaby O’Donnell, 61, and his stepfather Greg O’Donnell, 58, to complications from COVID-19.

This week, he was planing his DNC speech while also planning for his stepfather’s funeral on Saturday.

“I do have mixed emotions,” Garcia said in an interview Tuesday. “I lost my mom and my stepdad, but I know that they would be proud and they will be watching in their own way. I understand how important it is to have this opportunity for representation.”

The DNC kicked off Monday as a virtual event from Milwaukee and will culminate with Joe Biden accepting the presidential nomination and delivering his speech on Thursday. Sen. Kamala Harris, whom the mayor originally endorsed for president, has been named as Biden’s running mate.

On Tuesday, the keynote speech will be untraditional, with 17 separate speakers from around the country—including Garcia—woven together into one address. Garcia said his portion will be some time after 6 p.m. PST to a theme of “Leadership Matters.”

While Garcia wasn’t allowed to give specifics on his speech beforehand, he said he plans to focus on the future of the country and the Democratic Party. Biden and Harris, he said, represent a bridge to that future.

“To me it’s beyond politics; it’s about character and integrity, and I’ll do anything I can to help advance that in November,” he said.

Garcia said he learned a great deal about character and integrity from his mother Gaby, who told him to “keep moving forward,” even from her hospital bed as she was fighting COVID-19.

“She wanted to make sure that I stayed focused on the job in front of me,” he said.

Garcia, who is in his second four-year term as mayor, said he’s working to stay focused in these stressful times.

“It’s definitely the least amount of sleep I’ve gotten, but you’ve gotta keep moving forward,” he said. “We’ve got a city to run, and we’ve gotta work to make sure we win the election.”

While Long Beach’s mayor is in the spotlight, it’s also a chance for the city to shine. In November, Long Beach was on display when, for the first time, it hosted the California Democratic convention.

Former mayor Bob Foster, who served from 2006 to 2014, said Garcia’s speech is another chance to showcase the city.

“When I was mayor, one of the things we always had to fight against, in terms of getting businesses and people and even conventions, was the fact that Long Beach was always portrayed as a Navy town and an industrial city,” Foster said. “People didn’t understand what Long Beach really is. And tonight will give Garcia a chance to increase the visibility of how beautiful and how vibrant a city Long Beach really is.”

Long Beach school board member Megan Kerr, who is serving as a delegate this year, said the city would benefit from seeing Harris as the country’s vice president. She said Harris has visited Long Beach many times and has a special connection with the city.

“Long Beach has a lot to offer and we can be a model of a very diverse city that tries hard to do things well,” Kerr said. “Kamala sees us and she considers us.”

Another local delegate, Cesar Armendariz, a Long Beach resident and Downey High School teacher, said he’s glad the city’s Latino mayor is highlighted this year as he feels the DNC needs more representation from the Latino community. Armendariz hopes Garcia can shine a light on the need for diversity and support for education.

“Whatever attention we can bring to Long Beach and our needs would be great,” he said.

Councilman Rex Richardson, who’s also serving as a delegate, said Long Beach, with its diversity, represents the changing face of the American electorate. The mayor has worked hard in the political arena over the years to advocate for his city, he added.

“He’s taken Long Beach and put it in a national spotlight,” Richardson said. “This is a big moment for him.”

Staff writer Tim Grobaty contributed to this report. 

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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