Story and photo by Brandon Richardson/Managing Editor/@_Brandon_E
On a gloomy March morning, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia sips a mug of coffee at a wooden table in a small conference room, 14 stories above Downtown’s busy streets.
“I love Long Beach. I love the diversity, I love that it’s education focused, I love the people, I love the neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a big city, but a small town at the same time. It’s not Los Angeles, it’s unique.”
Born in Lima, Peru, Garcia moved to the U.S. at age 5 with his family. He was the first of his family to attend college, enrolling at Cal State Long Beach, where he graduated with a degree in communications and was involved in student government. “I was student body president at Cal State Long Beach when I was a senior,” Garcia said. “So, I knew I liked government and politics, but I never thought I’d run for elected office.”
Garcia would return to Cal State and receive his doctorate in education in 2010 after attending the USC where he earned his master’s degree.
Garcia went on to become the public information officer at LBCC after completing his education and later taught courses in communications and public policy at LBCC, Cal State and USC.
Garcia’s rise to mayor
After helping to found the Long Beach Post, an online newspaper, in 2007, and the North Pine Neighborhood Alliance, an advocacy group for downtown residents and businesses, in 2008, Garcia dove headfirst into Long Beach politics.
First, he replaced Bonnie Lowenthal on the City Council in 2009, after she was elected to the California Assembly in 2008. He was re-elected in 2010 by a large margin. Then, in July 2012, the City Council elected Garcia to a two-year term as vice mayor under Mayor Bob Foster.
History was made in July 2014, when 38-year-old Garcia assumed the title of mayor of Long Beach, making him the city’s youngest mayor, as well as being its first Latino and openly gay mayor.
“I know that for those communities, it was kind of extra special when I got elected and I take that responsibility pretty seriously,” Garcia said about the large Latino and gay communities in Long Beach.
“But I’ve always said that I’m mayor for everybody equally. Regardless if someone is Latino or white or black, or straight or gay, I’m everyone’s mayor and that’s how I try to govern, as well. Treat everyone with the same level of care and service.”
Garcia faces adversity
Garcia admits many difficulties come with the role of mayor, the biggest being maintaining the budget. “I think it’s always the biggest challenge with any mayor,” he said. “You have to watch the purse strings, you have to make sure that we’re spending resources wisely and that we’re not overspending. We can only spend what we have.”
Even with budget restraints, Garcia has already seen success in a number of areas during the first half of his term. He said he is most proud of the work that has been done to raise the minimum wage for workers, which will go from $10 to $10.50 effective Jan. 1, 2017, and go up every year until reaching $15 in 2020. He was also proud of the return of economic development and a rise in new businesses and record growth at the port.
However, Garcia acknowledged the city faces difficulties, one of the most visible being the ever-rising cost of living. With no rent control, private buyers can, and do, buy properties such as apartment complexes, give the building a superficial facelift, often leaving the actual units as they are and raise rent by hundreds of dollars, sometimes forcing residents to move.
“What we’re trying to do now is focus on smart, affordable housing. There’s no question that the cost of living is going up and one of the things we did to try and address that, obviously, is to raise the minimum wage to help those at the poverty level,” Garcia said. “But we also need affordable housing for families and other low-income folks and we have to build and get them on a pathway to either homeownership or low-income facilities. That’s the big focus right now. Obviously, a lot of these folks are raising rents, it’s a reaction that’s happening in every town.”
Providing affordable housing is a difficult task, but by no fault of the current administration. According to an August 2009 Press-Telegram article by Karen Robes Meeks, the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted to borrow $36 million of funds that would have been used for affordable housing during 2010 and 2011 to help close the state’s budget gap.
In addition to the money borrowed, cuts were made to programs to increase the amount of affordable housing, which makes it more difficult for the city to provide more affordable housing for Long Beach residents.
Regardless, Garcia said he has high hopes for the remainder of his first term in office. “The biggest goal, I would hope, is to really spend the next few years rebuilding the city’s infrastructure,” he said. “Really investing a lot of resources to fixing our streets and sidewalks and public buildings and public structures.”
Garcia on entertainment
When not attending to his mayoral duties, Garcia enjoys everything the city has to offer. “I go to a lot of restaurants and places around the city. I love George’s Greek Cafe, I love Open Sesame, I love El Pollo Imperial in North Long Beach, those are all restaurants I go to a lot,” Garcia said. “As far as stores, I like MADE in Downtown, Amazing Comics, those are probably the places I go to the most.”
When talking about his trips to Amazing Comics, near the corner of Bellflower Boulevard and Stearns Street, Garcia said he has been reading comic books and graphic novels for a long time.
“My favorite comic to read, and has been since I was a kid, is probably ‘Superman.’ But I also read a lot of independent stuff like ‘Saga.’ I read, probably one of my favorite graphic novels, ‘Y: The Last Man,’ or ‘Ex Machina,’ more independent stuff that people might not have heard of, but those have been ones I’ve enjoyed in the past.”
With his admitted love of small businesses and restaurants, Garcia also defends the high-profile national-brand stores and restaurants around the city.
“I think every big city should have a mix. If you look around Downtown, it’s a great mix. We have some big national brands, which, by the way, people love, they’re always packed, and there’s a need for it,” he explained. “I think you have to have a good mix to have a thriving city and to provide people with choices.”
During his time off, when he is not out and about in the city, Garcia enjoys more leisurely activities. “I try to watch TV when I can. I like ‘Veep,’ I like ‘Game of Thrones,’ I watch ‘The Walking Dead,’ and I watch a lot of news.”
Garcia also enjoys reading in his spare time and said fiction is his favorite genre, but he also enjoys reading biographies and autobiographies about presidents and other leaders. “Right now, I’m almost done with ‘Hard Choices,’ which is Hillary Clinton’s last book.”
Garcia on politics
When asked about his support for Clinton in the primary elections, a position he made apparent as early as April of last year, the mayor first made it a point to say he considered both Clinton and her opponent Bernie Sanders “great candidates” who are progressive and “stand up for the right values” and in November he would support whoever won the Democratic primaries.
That being said, he continued, “Personally, I think it’s way past our time to elect a woman as president. She’s well-qualified and I think this is a chance to elect a woman and to make sure that every single young girl and woman in this country can see themselves as president, and we don’t get that shot all the time and we have it this time. That, in particular, is why I’m a big supporter of Hillary’s.”
However, regardless of the outcome of the primaries or the November presidential election, the mayor has made one thing clear regarding his own political future, he does plan to run for a second term in office.
“I expect I will, you know, I haven’t given it too much thought, yet. I obviously want to do a good job this first term, but my plan is to certainly to run for another term.”