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Mayor-Elect Eric Garcetti Enters Office Amid Tempered Expectations

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MAYORELECT ERIC GARCETTI
City Councilman Eric Garcetti won the first L.A. mayor's race since the Great Recession with a simple message: telling voters he'd solve their basic problems. | Getty Images

City Councilman Eric Garcetti won the first L.A. mayor's race since the Great Recession with a simple message: telling voters he'd solve their basic problems.

Instead of promises to hire cops, Garcetti offered more muted goals, telling voters their phone calls to City Hall would be returned, the streets paved, and he'd make job creation a priority.

A day after defeating rival Wendy Greuel, Garcetti stuck to that back-to-basics theme at event on an Echo Park basketball court. The city's economy remains his top priority, he said, adding that it's time to "put the recession in the rearview mirror. "

But as Garcetti takes office, the city's gray skies are already clearing, say financial experts. Los Angeles' economy is slowly improving and tax revenues are growing. Garcetti may have a shorter list of lofty expectations than his predecessor, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but the improving economy may allow him to ultimately achieve more.

"He's in much better shape than our current mayor to do reforms on jobs, and on education," said William Yu, an economist with the UCLA Anderson School of Economics.

Much of the mayor's race focused on finances, with Garcetti and Greuel arguing over who could best manage the city's $7 billion budget and lead Los Angeles out of the recession.

Speaking as he walked out of the City Hall chambers on Friday, Garcetti cautioned that new revenues need to go back to basic services, and not be consumed by city employee salary and health care costs. The city's economy also needs to keep growing, he said.

"I'm optimistic, but certainly not exuberant," Garcetti said.

His tempered outlook comes after Villaraigosa's goals were stymied when the economy crashed in 2008, three years after he took office.

Budget cuts meant Villaraigosa had to consolidate two departments to reach his aim of 10,000 cops. To expand the city's transportation network and create thousands of jobs, Villaraigosa had to fight for federal dollars and convince voters to help pay for the bill.

And his $5 billion, five-year program to add housing across the city was largely reached, although the recession curtailed the plan's goal of adding middle-income housing, said Mercedes Marquez, the deputy mayor for housing.

Like Villaraigosa, Garcetti also outlined big ambitions, but they were never a central part of his campaign. He boldly promised to end homelessness and announced plans for a south-north transit line from Sherman Oaks to Sylmar. He also said he would establish outposts in other continents, like Asia, to increase L.A.'s visibility with trade partners.

Garcetti is entering office in a "managing expectations" mode, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Quality of life issues, rather than visionary goals, are going to dominate in the short-term, said Sonenshein, who believes "there's a pretty strong pent-up demand for making sure the basic things get taken care of. "

While improving, the unemployment rate remains higher than many other metropolitan areas, and the city's labor market isn't expected to return to pre-Great Recession levels until 2015-2016, UCLA's Yu said.

Additionally, Los Angeles has a dearth of educated, skilled citizens, Yu said. Los Angeles ranks 28th out of 30 major cities in terms of its human capital index, which measures the amount of education a citizen receives.

On Friday, Garcetti pointed to job training as one of a list of top priorities when he takes office on July 1.

Garcetti's campaign pitch to tackle the city's basic problems apparently resonated with residents worried about job prospects and frustrated by a lack of core services. As the 42nd mayor, he'll oversee a city hit harder than most by the Great Recession.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who ran for mayor in the primary, agreed that Los Angeles' economy is improving. But like Garcetti, she seemed wary of overstating that fact, saying questions remain about the impacts of federal sequestration and the state budget.

"It's always good to have your strategy aligned with where the economy is going," Perry said, "so your commitments can be delivered. "

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