In a methodical rise, Robert Garcia has recast himself as a picture-perfect Democrat

by Jason Ruiz, Long Beach Post

As his profile soared during the pandemic, Robert Garcia told and retold his political origin story to a national audience that was suddenly watching. But, back home, Garcia’s past as a Republican may still be his biggest liability in the race for a newly formed congressional seat that covers Long Beach and Southeast Los Angeles.

It’s certainly been a rich vein of attack by his most formidable competitor in the race, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who is leaning hard on her left-wing credentials in the solidly Democratic district.

But the Long Beach mayor, who abandoned his Republicanism 14 years ago around the same time he sought a local City Council seat, does not shy away from his former associations as a young organizer in college or communications director for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

Instead, he’s wrapped his political evolution into a personal narrative as a young immigrant to the U.S. during the Reagan era, and later, he says, his awakening as a gay man during the state’s Proposition 8 battle that banned same-sex marriage.

Maybe more effectively, though, he’s drowned out any doubt about his current allegiance to the Democratic establishment by out-raising the assemblymember four-fold and snagging endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom and other high-profile Democrats. He’s also campaigned fiercely for Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.

“It’s impossible to see anything but a good Democrat,” said Eric Bauman, the party’s former county chair who admits he once tried to “massacre” Garcia in a failed attempt to keep the newly minted Democrat off the Long Beach City Council back in 2009.

Since winning his first election, Garcia has proven he’s a calculated and media-savvy politician who leaves nothing to chance. He soon ascended to the mayor’s seat and has used his bully pulpit to almost speak into existence the picture of a booming urban metropolis he envisioned for Long Beach—even if his promises sometimes outpaced reality.

The mayor also earned himself many political allies by letting others claim a share in that vision, often working behind the scenes to arrive at consensus, or, to critics, the least contentious political result.

But a reluctance to take risks has earned Garcia harsh criticism from some who want stronger—and quicker—solutions for pressing issues that liberal groups have lobbied on, such as the city’s lack of affordable housing and stubborn reliance on oil revenue.

James Suazo, executive director of Long Beach Forward, said optics are what seem to matter most to Garcia. “Is that good for political careers or is that good for the city?” Suazo said.

In the end, Garcia’s allies and opponents assess him in strikingly similar ways—even if the tone is reversed: Either he’s adept at building coalitions while pursuing the most productive compromise, or he’s skilled at discerning the most palatable option while squelching dissent to avoid any personal jeopardy.

Garcia’s record likely gives a glimpse of how he’d govern in Congress, and as the past shows, it’s his methods more than any ideological conviction that have fueled his political ascent.

Or as Bauman, the former party chair, puts it, “I think Robert Garcia has proven himself to be the kind of Democrat that Democrats need in the House in order to help move the President’s agenda forward.”

Republican roots  

Garcia, 44, immigrated to the United States from Peru in the early 1980s, when he was 5, with his mother, Gabriella. The family moved to the San Gabriel Valley, where Gabriella cleaned houses for a living, then later worked as a medical assistant at a satellite office for the City of Hope in West Covina.

The mayor told the Press-Telegram in a 2018 interview that he remembers going to the homes she was cleaning: “The homes seemed like mansions to me as a kid,” he said, adding that he wanted to work hard so he could live in places like that.

Gaby O’Donnell and son Robert Garcia. Garcia said today his mother had died from complications of COVID-19. Courtesy photo.

Gaby O’Donnell and son Robert Garcia. Courtesy photo.

Garcia recalled in a tweet last October—he is prolific on social media—that he learned to read and write English in part by reading comic books, and remains an unabashed fan of Superman and other superheroes (“the mayor of Long Beach is a comic nerd….” he tweeted in 2017). Even his campaign logo, with shadow-box lettering, pays homage to superheroes.

Garcia became a citizen at 21, 12 years after President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986 that helped facilitate the process. This was, he said, what led to his initial loyalty to the Republican party, which lasted through his early 30s.

But Garcia wasn’t just loyal—he was extremely active: He helped found and lead Republican clubs in the city and worked to get President George W. Bush elected in 2000. He served as communications director at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in the early 2000s at a time when it was viewed more as a monument to Nixon and an event space for right-wing causes.

He earned a master’s degree at USC and a doctorate in higher education at CSULB, and later taught public policy and public relations at USC. Locally, he worked as the campaign director for Republican Councilman Frank Colonna’s unsuccessful mayoral run in 2006.

In an interview, Colonna, who Garcia since appointed to the city’s Harbor Commission, said he recalled the mayor telling him of his switch to the Democratic party at around the time Garcia was mulling a run for the Downtown City Council seat in 2008. Colonna said it was a realistic move given the city’s electoral makeup.

Republican or Democrat, Colonna said one of Garcia’s greatest strengths is his ability to not be dogmatic. “He knows how to navigate the political field, if you look at it that way, and not just take positions that are either in one direction or the other,” Colonna said.

The mayor, for his part, says his transformation was spurred by the 2008 Proposition 8 gay marriage ban supported mostly by conservative Republicans, not due to any political motivation.

“As a gay person you spend a lot of time trying to be someone different for a lot of people,” he said in a recent interview. “It takes folks a lot of time to kinda fully form who you are as a person.”

A skilled communicator 

During his tenure as mayor, Garcia has been a vocal advocate for an urbanized Downtown, a sales tax measure to pay for public safety and infrastructure and a series of charter amendments that made significant changes to the way city government functions.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that landed Garcia a spot on the national stage, particularly following the deaths of his mother and step-father from the virus in late July and early August 2020, respectively, a loss that he features in his campaign videos.

“We all need to work together to ensure this doesn’t happen to other families,” he said at a press briefing shortly after his mother died at 61.

Garcia became a regular guest on national broadcast news networks to talk about the loss of his mother and the city’s efforts to protect, and later vaccinate, the public—efforts for which he won wide praise from state and national leaders.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia at a news conference at Cal State Long Beach with California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 3, 2021. Long Beach has been lauded as a model for its early and aggressive COVID-19 vaccine rollout success. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

After Long Beach transformed its Convention Center into a mass vaccination site in early 2021, Gov. Newsom lauded the city for being a model across the state. Long Beach, indeed, was vaccinating eligible residents at a faster pace than the county and was the first to move teachers to the front of the line.

Just a few weeks after his mother died, Garcia was among 17 young “rising stars,” Democrats chosen to give brief keynote remarks at the Democratic National Convention in August 2020, using the scripted soundbites to lambast the policies of President Donald Trump.

A communications major in his undergraduate studies, Garcia has always been a strategist who is adept at media and optics, associates say, beginning with his time at Cal State Long Beach, where, as student body president, he organized splashy entertainment events, backed raising student fees to support athletics programs and took an assertive, and at times antagonistic, role in campus media coverage.

In a 2001 opinion piece in the campus newspaper, he chided the Daily Forty-Niner for not covering the accomplishments of the Associated Students, Inc., or A.S.I.: “The truth is that there is so much more that A.S.I. does than the brief little blurbs that appear in the Forty-Niner.”

When a different campus publication ran a satirical piece comparing Garcia to Hitler, he led a vote to oust the editor and replace him with one of Garcia’s fraternity brothers.

After college, he leaned further into the power of the press, in 2007 co-founding the Long Beach Post with his friend Shaun Lumachi, who died in 2011. When he ran for mayor, Garcia relinquished his stake in the paper, giving control to close friend Cindy Allen, who later sold the Post before running for City Council herself. (Garcia and Allen no longer have any involvement in the Post.)

Garcia is dogged about messaging, which was evident during his campaigning for the controversial Measure BBB charter amendment in 2018, which allowed council members and the mayor to run for three terms. Garcia insisted that the measure simply closed a “loophole” in the charter that could allow a candidate to run for potentially indefinite terms as a write-in candidate. (In the city’s history, just two councilmembers and one mayor have won a single third term through the write-in process).

Those who know Garcia credit him for his impeccable—some say obsessive—ability to craft such messaging, even for things he didn’t originally support, like cannabis. Garcia authored a motion to ban cannabis dispensaries in 2012, but in January 2022 bragged on Twitter that “In Long Beach we legalized cannabis before the state,” a move that was thanks to a voter-initiated ballot measure, not any action from Garcia or his City Council colleagues.

“He knows how to write headlines and he knows it’s more important than the substance of the program,” said Stefan Borst-Censullo, a former Garcia staffer who went on to consult for the cannabis industry after leaving City Hall. “He relies on the headlines rather than the nitty gritty of the policy.”

‘Pick a side’  

One of the hallmarks of Garcia’s tenure as mayor has been a reputation for 9-0 City Council votes, said Councilman Daryl Supernaw—something the council has been criticized for because of the perception that there is no opposition at City Hall.

“If he thinks there’ll be pushback on things, he’s going to avoid that,” Supernaw said of Garcia. “That’s really driven the way he does business.”

Striving for consensus is a practice that reaches back to his early career on the council, according to former Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, a frequent critic of City Hall.

“I told him, “You’re not a teacher, you’re a policymaker’” Gabelich said. “I told him he needed to pick a side.”

But some who have worked closely with Garcia over the years say he has indeed taken risks, including pushing to raise taxes: Once to approve the Measure A sales tax, then to make that tax permanent—which Garcia says polling showed wouldn’t pass. He also lobbied for Measure MA, which set the city’s schedule for taxing cannabis, and later Measure M, which allowed the city to continue transferring excess revenue from the water department to the general fund—a practice that has since been ruled unconstitutional.

Mayor Robert Garcia and former mayor Bob Foster during the opening of the new Civic Center on July 29, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Former Mayor Bob Foster, who many would consider to be Garcia’s mentor, warned him that putting his name on a tax increase would be political suicide.

“I don’t care who you are, or what time you live in, when you say you want to tax people more money it’s hard to do,” said Foster, adding that he gives Garcia “real credit” for taking that chance to shore up the city’s finances.

Added former City Manager Pat West: “On a scale from one to 10, it’s a 10,” he said of the impact Measure A had on the city’s ability to fix streets and invest in public safety.

Garcia, who served as a councilman during a time of discord on the dais under Foster, doesn’t shy away from the idea that he’s a consensus builder, but rejected the notion that he pressures council members to vote a certain way. He said building a consensus often means arriving at something that can be voted into action, which sometimes “is better than nothing.”

“I’m not one that likes seeing the council engage in attacking each other,” he said. “It’s not my style and I don’t like those moments.”

His distaste for messy public debates, though, can go beyond his council colleagues.

When the White House called on Garcia last year to help with a crisis at the border, he moved quickly on their proposal to convert the Long Beach Convention Center into temporary housing for unaccompanied migrant children, a move virtually guaranteed to stir up vitriol during a supercharged national debate on immigration.

But when the plan came before the Long Beach City Council, it passed unanimously. What’s more, any public dissent was almost nonexistent with just one caller urging the council not to expand a detention network he said criminalizes immigrants. Others opposed to the plan had tried to get through, but the speakers’ list was already full, stacked with Garcia’s close friends and political allies.

The mayor later admitted he’d urged friendly groups to sign up to speak in support before the council’s agenda ever went public. Even if they crowded out other speakers, there were still plenty of options—emails, e-comments—for dissenting opinions, Garcia said.

In the eyes of Suazo, who was the lone opposing voice at the City Council meeting, this was no equal substitute for speaking directly to policymakers as they made a crucial decision.

“This is not what democracy looks like,” he said at the time.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia after a press conference before the opening of a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children at the Long Beach Convention Center on April 28, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Downtown renaissance 

Perhaps the most tangible manifestation of Garcia’s tenure is his vision for an urbanized Downtown city core with tall office buildings, dense residential housing and public transportation. There is no other part of the city that has undergone as dramatic of change under Garcia’s leadership; over the past decade, cranes have been as ubiquitous Downtown as the ocean breeze.

In the middle of it all, a shiny new $520 million Civic Center towers over a crater in the ground where the old Brutalist City Hall once stood, with scaled-down plans for a mixed-use residential development in its place.

Garcia was pivotal in this vision after helping craft the Downtown Plan, which sped up the construction approval process and limited legal challenges for over 5,000 new residential units over the past decade.

West, the former city manager, said Garcia has been a tremendous cheerleader for the city, and—though he came to lead the city in an economically advantageous time—put in the work to meet with developers, investors and business leaders to encourage growth and investment.

“He’s been relentless,” West said.

The Downtown Plan, however, has also been a source of controversy for displacing residents who can’t afford the high-dollar rents and mortgage payments—which a 2011 analysis warned would happen a year before the plan was approved. The city was also late to adopt an ordinance requiring developers to incorporate affordable units into buildings, which many cities have used to mitigate some of the effects of gentrification.

Garcia said residents’ stories of displacement have affected him, given that he once lived in government-subsidized housing—at one time with 10 people. But Garcia said the city wasn’t ready for more progressive policies at the time the Downtown Plan was adopted.

“I don’t think enough of us knew what good progressive housing policy was, but I’m proud that it’s now in place,” the mayor said, referring to the inclusionary housing ordinance that was adopted early last year. “But I agree that the Downtown Plan is not perfect.”

City leadership has also been criticized for zoning density primarily in Downtown and more low-income neighborhoods, leaving the eastern, more affluent parts of the city—where residents are vocal and vote in higher numbers—largely untouched.

During heated deliberations of a broad zoning plan called the Land Use Element in 2018, Garcia said he pushed the issue as far as he could, but the support for more density in suburban parts of the city wasn’t there among the City Council.

Robert Garcia is sworn into his second term as mayor at the inauguration ceremony on July 17, 2018. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova

The race 

The race for the 42nd Congressional seat is Garcia’s toughest campaign since he emerged victorious from a crowded field of mayoral candidates a decade ago.

The district was redrawn to include parts of Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s 47th District, and Lucille Roybal-Allard’s 40th District—both of whom are retiring, leaving the contest wide open with no incumbent.

Garcia has already raised nearly $1 million in what is surely going to be an expensive race that may end in a general election runoff between Robert Garcia and Cristina Garcia—or in a runoff between whichever Garcia emerges from the primary in June, and the only Republican in the race, John Briscoe.

Both Garcias are 44, ambitious and have compelling stories of rising through the ranks from humble beginnings. But the Long Beach mayor is seen as the frontrunner, even though a large chunk of Long Beach was lopped off of Lowenthal’s district as part of the state’s redistricting process.

Sergio Carillo, a longtime friend of the mayor and political consultant, said Robert Garcia’s support is partially a product of how the mayor has networked over the years, as well as how he sells himself.

“In politics, people want to support a winner, and he’s got the perception that he’s the frontrunner,” Carillo said.

Garcia has indeed been a loyal establishment foot soldier who has proven to be adept at fundraising and forging alliances and making the most of opportunities to shine a light on his achievements. He has racked up more than 100 endorsements from around the state, while Cristina Garcia has won support mostly from leaders in her current assembly district.

The reason for his success, Carillo said, is “he’s so damn tenacious” and “can make people feel like they’re the most important person in the moment when he’s talking to them.”

Or, for critics like former staffer Borst-Censullo, the mayor has leaned toward a safe political path built around endorsements with no individual policy convictions.

“That’s the Garcia way,” he said.

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