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3 signs Eric Garcetti might be aiming for the White House

Mayor Eric Garcetti takes to the podium at his inauguration at City Hall in Los Angeles, California on July 1, 2017.
Daryl Barker/KPCC
Mayor Eric Garcetti at his second inaugural at L.A. City Hall on July 1, 2017.

In interviews this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has left the door open to a possible 2020 presidential bid. His involvement in the launch of three little-noticed groups provides further evidence that he's stepping on to the national stage and considering a run for the White House.

The organizations were created by Garcetti and his political allies after his re-election in March, and will draw on Garcetti's record, agenda and fundraising prowess.

The groups include two nonprofits designed to support city-level solutions to pressing issues. The third and newest is a PAC that could see Garcetti wading into 2018 congressional races in Southern California and across the country.

"What we see the mayor doing here, it would seem, is putting together a toolbox," said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic consultant. These new groups "are tools in a political toolbox that somebody with political ambitions might ultimately use to build their visibility and their relationships in the world of politics."

Pair of nonprofits focus on urban issues

In early November, Garcetti traveled to South Bend, Indiana to launch the Accelerator for America. Members of the organization, which includes the mayors of Nashville, Tennessee, Columbia, South Carolina and South Bend, snapped photos in Notre Dame Stadium and talked up its cities-first agenda.

The Accelerator promises to fund initiatives bolstering employment and infrastructure, saying America's cities can't wait for action from Washington, D.C.

One model could be Measure M, the L.A. County ballot measure that secured billions of dollars in funding for transportation projects in the nation's most populous county. Garcetti was the face of the Measure M effort, and a group bearing his name spent more than $800,000 to sway voters in 2016.

Accelerator for America CEO Rick Jacobs and senior advisor Yusef Robb are longtime Garcetti allies who worked in his office during his first term as mayor.

"We're looking for the best possible solutions for job creation and infrastructure repair within our cities," Robb told KPCC.

The group filed its paperwork with the state in May, and is headquartered in Los Angeles. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is an early backer, to the tune of $500,000. The group previously gave half a million dollars to Garcetti's Measure M effort.

The Accelerator for America has applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, allowing it to receive tax-deductible donations, advocate for its agenda and do some lobbying. But a 501(c)(3) is barred from getting involved in elections and supporting candidates.

"Issues yes, people no," as tax law expert Ellen Aprill puts it.

That's where Accelerator for America Action comes in. Incorporated five months after its sister organization, this separate group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. That difference in status matters: This nonprofit can lobby without limits and get directly involved in elections — potentially running advertisements to bolster and attack candidates.

"It just creates a lot of options," said Sragow. "It can be more overtly political."

Robb says the 501(c)(4) status will allow Accelerator for America Action to stay involved if, for example,  an infrastructure proposal shifts into a ballot measure.

Being a 501(c)(4) can carry its own political risks. These groups are the vehicles used by secretive donors to funnel "dark money" into political campaigns. Accelerator for America Action hopes to head off that appearance by sharing information about donors, as the group did in response to a KPCC request.

Donors to Accelerator to America groups

Donor Amount Recipient
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America $500,000 Accelerator for America
International Union of Operating Engineers $125,000 Accelerator for America
WSP $50,000 Accelerator for America
Laborers International Union of North America $125,000 Accelerator for America Action

Source: Accelerator for America/Accelerator for America Action as provided Dec. 21 

Stepping onto national stage

If the Accelerator for America efforts are focused on cities, Garcetti's political action committee promises to change things in Washington, D.C.

"The Democratic Midterm Victory Fund is about electing democrats so there can be political solutions to the lack of support coming from Washington for working families," Yusef Robb told KPCC. Robb is a spokesman for the PAC, in addition to his role with the Accelerator groups.

The Victory Fund filed its paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 17. It's a "hybrid" committee, meaning it can contribute to candidates directly as well as spend as much outside money as it can raise.

Unlike the Accelerator groups, Garcetti will actively fundraise for the PAC, Robb said, adding that no decisions have been made about which races to target. The PAC will take a close look at vulnerable House seats in California, including a handful in Orange County, but may support candidates across the country, he said.

For Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, the PAC shows a mayor looking beyond the L.A. city limits.

"Eric is ambitious," Regalado said. "Sometimes he's been quietly ambitious, and I think he's being more boldly out there and ambitious in wanting to have a national stage."

In normal times, a mayor would make an unlikely presidential candidate. No mayor has ever gone from city hall directly to the White House. But the rise of Donald Trump has ripped up the old rulebook. Regalado thinks Garcetti could position himself as a bridge between the establishment wing of the party and the restless, more progressive voters who backed Bernie Sanders.

A PAC could help Garcetti make those connections within his party. And it complements his efforts with the Accelerator groups.

"Exactly what he's going to do with each of these, we don't know and he may not know," Sragow said. "But they all perform different functions. They're all compatible with one another. And it's actually a very thoughtful, smart way to go about creating the possibility that you might — oh, lets just say for example — decide to run for president."

For his part, Yusef Robb deflected talk of Garcetti's political ambitions. "There's more steak to this than there is sizzle," he said. "People are going to read into things anything they want, but this is about moving the ball forward."

New groups join existing Garcetti-linked nonprofit

The new groups join The Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles as yet another destination for donors looking to support Garcetti's agenda. Since its inception in 2014, more than $25 million in payments to the Mayor's Fund have been behested by Mayor Garcetti, as detailed in a KPCC report.

The pace of payments behested by Garcetti in recent years was much faster than that of Gov. Jerry Brown and other statewide politicians.

In the case of the Mayor's Fund, fundraising has slowed down lately. The nonprofit released its latest tax documents this month, covering the period between July 2016 and June 2017. The forms show an organization ramping up spending on grants while taking in considerably less from donors than in previous years.

"If you look at our financials you'll see that we had a lot of cash on hand. We're not here to sit on cash," Mayor's Fund President Deidre Lind said.

The Fund, an independent nonprofit operating out of donated office space in City Hall, offered financial support to over 30 programs last year, including college access, prison re-entry and cybersecurity initiatives. "I think the city is better because of the Mayor's Fund," Lind told KPCC.

The Fund is not associated with the Accelerator for America, beyond sharing some personnel, she said. Rick Jacobs is a Mayor's Fund board member and CEO of the Accelerator for America.