It’s clear that even after a historic election victory in June, not everybody is ready for Robert Garcia, Long Beach’s first Latino, and openly gay mayor as well as the youngest person to ever hold the position.
“I just had a breakfast meeting where someone thought I was the waiter and they were meeting me for lunch,” Garcia recently recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, can you take my order?’ And I said, ‘You know, I’m Robert Garcia. I’m here to meet you.’”
Despite some wince-worthy moments along the way, Garcia has handled a tough city campaign and the responsibilities of his new office with the candor, grace, and aplomb of someone much older than his 36 years. Last week, Garcia visited the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch for a Leader series to provide special insight into his unlikely ascension to the mayor’s office after a hard-fought campaign, how his age helps him communicate with Long Beach residents, and his education-based initiatives aimed at tackling the city high poverty rates.
An immigrant who came to the United States at age 5, Garcia shared an inspiring story of perseverance and achievement with students, faculty, and practitioners at Tuesday’s event. He found an affinity in the world of education from an early age, and over the course of his career, Garcia’s earned a master’s degree in communication management from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and a doctorate in higher education from California State University at Long Beach. (He also teaches at USC Annenberg, the USC Price School of Public Policy, California State University, Long Beach, and Long Beach City College.) But it was also at a university where he first tried his hand at politics on a whim and discovered important mentors among his professors that set him on a path toward public service.
“My family was always working, so I didn’t have a support system,” Garcia said. “ So when I was in college, I looked to the faculty members as my support system. I gained a couple of really strong faculty mentors and I’ll say that if not for those two faculty mentors as an undergrad, I would not have kind of pursued leadership or challenged myself.
“I was fortunate that I had a faculty that challenged me and that always told me, you know what, you can go to graduate school or you can get involved in leadership.”
Now that he’s in Long Beach’s top job, Garcia still maintains contact with his mentors. He’s also picked up a couple more along the way who serves as an informal kitchen cabinet, giving him a valuable perspective about how Long Beach works.
“There are a few people in the city that I go to for advice that I think have been around for a really long time,” Garcia said. “I don’t know all the answers and I don’t know how to solve every problem in the city and so I think you have to go out and get mentors and receive advice.”
Garcia faced an uphill battle in his first mayoral election. In the race to replace former Mayor Bob Foster, Garcia faced off with a field of nine other candidates, including state legislator Bonnie Lowenthal, who is part of a prominent political family in Long Beach. After getting important endorsements from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Foster, Garcia did well in the primary election and then narrowly edged his runoff opponent, real-estate developer Damon Dunn. Though the campaign was marked with harsh attacks and scathing political mailers, Garcia thinks the experience was helpful.
“It was terrible while I was going through it, but a tough campaign makes you a tougher mayor,” he said. “Everyday you’re getting attacked, you’re getting hit, people are saying horrible things about you, you’re reading horrible things about yourself in the newspaper, and you’re watching this caricature of yourself. And it’s not really you.
But you’re doing the same thing, by the way. I attacked him and hit him back as much as he was attacking me because unfortunately, that’s what politics is. But because of that experience today, I’m immune to letting things that would normally bother me, bother me anymore. “
Opponents attacked Garcia on the campaign trail for his age, but part of what has made Garcia effective so far is his ability to connect his city residents in a variety of ways, including a canny use of technology to communicate his ideas and vision.
“What I’ve learned is that you have to use every channel of communication available to communicate to the public,” Garcia said. “You cannot just rely on just the news covering things and assume that people are going to get all the information from the newspaper because they’re not. “
Garcia maintains an active profile on social media, a habit that sometimes receives disapproving comments from members of his staff who would rather control his message more tightly.
“I communicate extensively through social media,” he said. “I often get as many Facebook messages as I do emails to my office because people just view that as an important connection, and I have a pretty good network of folks that I communicate with [on social media]. I think you have to create your own ways of communicating. Having kind of grown-up during the change in the digital environment has helped me greatly.”
Although he’s only a little bit more 100 days into his new job, Garcia is already thinking about ways he can make his mark on the city. According to the mayor, first up on the list is addressing the high rates of poverty—more than one in five city residents in the city lives below the poverty line. Garcia has already identified several ways Long Beach can take on the issue, starting with pre-school education.
“I’m a big believer that the single most important thing you can do to strengthen your economy is to invest in education,” Garcia said. “One of the single most important things we can do to strengthen the future of the city is to ensure that there’s an equal place where all youngsters have access to universal pre-K. In Long Beach, the families with the least access to preschool are also the families that need it the most.
“Seattle just passed the universal pre-K program this last election. New York has done it. San Francisco has done it. We’re going to do pre-K the right way in Long Beach, too.”
Garcia has many more ideas he’d like to implement—including expanding internship opportunities for high school students and economic development strategies—but he knows that challenging days are ahead. Fortunately, Garcia has a wisdom and maturity well beyond his years that has many in Long Beach looking forward to the continued growth of a new leader.
“There’s a few people in the city that I go to for advice that I think have been around for a really long time. I don’t know all the answers and I don’t know how to solve every problem at the city and so I think you have to go out and get mentors and receive advice.”
-Mayor Robert Garcia