Above, Youth Reporters sit with Mayor Robert Garcia in October 2018. This Q&A is part of our ongoing city leader series featuring interviews and collaborations led by our reporters ages 15 to 25. More to come. Photos by Michael Lozano.
On October 10, 2018, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia welcomed VoiceWaves for a Q&A at his City Hall office. As mayor, he oversees policies that shape the 2nd largest port in the United States, valued at $180 billion annually, which also brings in environmental challenges for residents. Here, Mayor Garcia also shares advice for Latinos and youth of color, his vision for the city’s criminal justice system, and the future of greater Long Beach.
VOICEWAVES: As a Latino mayor in Long Beach, what’s your average day like as mayor?
MAYOR: No day is the same and all days are very different… One day. I might be running around a lot from meetings across the city. Some days, I might spend the whole day in Sacramento lobbying for something that we need in Long Beach. It really depends. I think the one thing that I try to do is to enjoy my day. I really love being mayor. I love the city and I love Long Beach a lot.
I think being a Latino mayor can both be the same and different. I understand that as the first mayor of color that comes with additional responsibilities. That really is driven by there being expectations for the community to do things that go beyond just the role.
Being LGBTQ and being the first Latino mayor of color in the city, I know that for a lot of communities that’s important. And so I tried to be very respectful and honor that and try to lead the best way that I can to so that people are happy and proud of the work we’re doing.
VOICEWAVES: What advice do you have for youth of color or queer youth that look up to you? What advice would you offer them?
MAYOR: I was an immigrant. I wasn’t born in the U.S. I became a U.S. citizen at 21. And that opportunity really gave me a broad perspective on the city. And so I really feel honored that I was able to become a citizen. I think it’s terrible and sad that we’re in a situation today that we don’t offer that same opportunity to younger people…
I’m not a believer that just because you work hard you’re going to get something. I think often times there’s barriers to that. But I think it’s our job as government or as people to provide opportunities in society so that people can have a shot. It’s not just, you know, “Ima’ pull my bootstraps up and get it done.” We often have to help in that process.
VOICEWAVES: Being the first Latino mayor, what’s your advice for Latino youth and the community? What are your thoughts on that?
MAYOR: Latinos make up 41 percent of the city — the largest group. So whenever I talk to groups of Latinos in the city I tell them that really famous Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And that’s true. If you are the largest group, that comes with additional responsibility — how are you going to step up as a community and take that responsibility?
A lot of young Latinas/Latinos across the city are doing that. But it’s not just about one community — it’s about working with every part of the city whether someone is Latino, white or African-American or Asian-American. Whatever it is, we have to work with everybody.
I think that’s a big responsibility that’s growing. That population is actually getting larger not smaller. And you can see it. I mean, our police chief is Latino, our new fire chief is Latino, the director of the port is Latino. The director of the airport is Latino. So I think the city itself is beginning to reflect much more what the population looks like, as well.
VOICEWAVES: And what ways you feel have you evolved since you first became mayor?
MAYOR: I would say that I certainly know the job better. I also think I’ve grown a much tougher skin. There are things that have an effect on me and there are things that don’t. I’m not motivated, for example, by people that come and yell and are upset. That does nothing to motivate me to do anything. I get motivated and driven by people that can make a rational or scientific or data-driven presentation to me on a topic — that motivates me.
Early on, I was really like, “oh my gosh, these people are upset!” I was really driven by the emotion of the moment. Now I am not. Now, I am much more comfortable following data and science.
VOICEWAVES: Do you have an example you’d like to share?
MAYOR: Let’s look at crime. Crime is the lowest it’s been in 30 years in Long Beach. When someone comes and says, “no, crime is high” when actually it’s not — it’s lower. It could be that it’s higher in a certain neighborhood for a certain year. It could be that there are different kinds of crimes we’re experiencing now particularly along some issues with homelessness that we have to deal with. But overall the city is safer than it was five, 10, 20, 30 years ago.
The Long Beach you’re growing up in is dramatically safer than the one your parents grew up in. And that’s fact driven by data. We use data to make decisions and put resources in place.
VOICEWAVES: On that topic, the national climate about police specifically has been tense over the last couple of years. How are you and the city showing that Long Beach police can be accountable?
MAYOR: Well, I think police are accountable. I think every police department should be accountable to the public… First, you have to start back with what is your police department — is it a good reflection of the city? One thing I’m really proud of is the police department itself today more than anytime in recent history reflects the city. That means making sure it’s a diverse department, that the training goes beyond traditional training.
But now we have enormous training around mental health issues or about ensuring that [Long Beach] knows how to deal with people experiencing homelessness or making sure that we are sensitive to the fact that drug policy, let’s say, around marijuana is so different today than it was in the past.
I’m a big supporter of body-worn cameras and that’s what we’ve rolled out across the city; I think about one-third of our officers have them. All our officers need to have body-worn cameras.
We’re trying to be innovative. Public safety is not just the police’s job. Public safety has to be everyone’s job. Certainly, in my opinion, there’s no better way to ensure safety than to have a good school education system.
We have a program in Long Beach called the Justice lab. And we’re trying to be more holistic about our approaches on policing. Through the justice lab, we’ve now put mental health technicians in our jail. It used to be that if you went to the Long Beach jail you were either in or out. Now we have a mental health counselor that’s in the jail permanently. They try to assess them, they try to get them help so there’s not recidivism that puts them right back into the jail system.
We also have done an enormous amount of research and talked to people that are repeat offenders. I’m also a supporter to make sure we’re transitioning to both recreational and medicinal marijuana in a way that decriminalizes the process for people.
I also included in this year’s budget for the first time significant resources to expunge records for people that may have some low-level drug convictions or other issues. They deserve the opportunity to work and because of that conviction they cannot.
Policing is always complex and we have continually to work on better ways of building public trust.
VOICEWAVES: What are your upcoming plans to solve homelessness in Long Beach?
MAYOR: There’s a lot. We have a pretty high-level task force called Everyone Home Long Beach which is dealing with this issue and we’ll be providing recommendations to the city council. That includes a whole huge laundry list of policy changes that we’re trying to do in the city. It includes issues around short-term rental, additional tenant protections to provide maybe direct rental assistance for people that need it, those that might be falling into homelessness.
It includes things like building inclusionary housing so that every development that we build includes affordable housing.
The city doesn’t build housing… Developers are building housing and many don’t want to build affordable housing [because] they don’t make as much money. So we’re trying to pass a law that every development in the city would include a percentage that has to be affordable. We should have a policy in front of the council hopefully in the coming months on that issue.
The Washington neighborhood has about five hundred units under construction right now and about 85 percent of those units are affordable. That’s a good neighborhood story.
VOICEWAVES: Do you have any plans to prevent pollution in Long Beach?
MAYOR: Traditionally, the Long Beach and Los Angeles area has been one of the most polluted areas in the country, because of the ports and of all the industry. But the air around the ports is cleaner today than it’s been in decades. Emissions, diesel emissions are all dramatically down.
Ships are now plugging electric into the ports. A lot of the trucks that used to be diesel trucks are now in clean energy CNG trucks. There’s now terminals that are electric.
We’ve created the Clean Air Action Plan, which the first 10 years of just finished. For the next 10 years, basically by 2023/2024 we want all of our trucks to be electric trucks. We want all of our terminals to be electric terminals.
So in no way we should be satisfied with the air quality today. It’s still not great comparatively to other areas but is it dramatically better than it was? Absolutely. And so we have to do better and that’s an issue not just at the port but regionally.
VOICEWAVES: In West Long Beach there’s the issue on pollution from the Andeavor refinery restructuring and that pollution is coming from a different, adjacent city. I want to ask your thoughts on how would you solve the issue?
MAYOR: I had a lot of concerns about that. They’re doing some modernization of some of those facilities. I have some letters and talked to folks about that.
I’m very concerned… That facility and the surrounding facilities have really created historically large challenges for the community from a pollution point of view.
I know the facilities are not in Long Beach but they do cause residual pollution into the city. I will also note that more than ever they’re being regulated by the AQMD and other agencies. So there are regulatory rules in place today for facilities like that. They’re becoming dramatically cleaner. Not soon enough and we need it faster but it is changing.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.