Talking to Long Beach’s Mayor, a ‘Next Generation’ Democrat

Good morning.

Before Tuesday night, when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention, if you knew anything about Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach, it was probably the following:

He is the first Latino to lead the city of more than 460,000. (Its population is 42.5 percent Latino.) He is Long Beach’s first openly gay mayor. (Mr. Garcia married his husband in 2018, which also made him the city’s first mayor to tie the knot while in office.)

More recently, Mr. Garcia has made headlines for speaking up about something that has nothing to do with his political career. On July 26, his mother, 61, died of Covid-19 complications. His stepfather, 58, died of the virus two weeks later.

As my colleagues reported, the 17-speaker “keynote” felt different than it has in past conventions. It didn’t anoint a single star, like Barack Obama. But it solidified Mr. Garcia’s place as a representative of the Democratic Party of the future.

[Read the full story about the keynote speakers.]

I spoke with Mr. Garcia, 42, after the speech. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. First, I wanted to say I’m so sorry about your parents. They sounded like they were really amazing people. Can I ask you to talk a bit about them? How do you think they would have responded to your appearance at the convention?

Well they’re just huge supporters of anything I did — for me, my brother, so they would be very happy.

I think, especially for my mom. She’s someone that always taught us to love our country, to always give back to it as immigrants. I wish she was still here, obviously. But I know that in her own way, she supported.

She was excited about the election herself. In fact, the last person she voted for was Joe Biden in the primary.

[Joseph R. Biden Jr. is officially the Democratic presidential nominee. Catch up here.]

Wow. So how are you feeling right now?

The last few weeks have been up and down, so that’s been really rough. Just personally for my family.

But I’m also excited to be part of the convention and join a group of really great people, many of whom I know from across the country, all kind of working together to make sure that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris get elected in November.

The keynote was much different from years past. How did it come together?

We knew from the get-go that it was going to be a joint speech. And so we also knew it was going to showcase a diverse group of people. We all had phones and lights and kits to get it done. And then it got pieced together on the production side.

It’s been really important for Vice President Biden to be a bridge for the future. He’s talked about that a lot in his campaign, in trying to highlight younger people. And the speech was indicative of what tonight was about.

I read in The Press-Telegram recently that you were previously registered as a Republican. How would you explain to your past self that you’d someday be speaking at the Democratic National Convention? What changed?

I mean, everything. I think of the person I was in my 20s: closeted and confused. I wasn’t aware of who I was.

My family and I immigrated and we became citizens because of Ronald Reagan. It was an amnesty bill that got us citizenship. So everyone in my family loves Ronald Reagan — they still do. So when we all registered, we all registered Republican.

Over time, you realize a lot about yourself. I was gay, my values didn’t align with the party. And obviously things were happening around immigration.

I always like to say I chose to become a Democrat.

And the Republican Party today is the party of Donald Trump, and that’s something that is just against everything our country is about and everything my family taught me.

You think about what bipartisan effort on immigration was in the past — that would never happen again.

Shifting back a little bit, what would you say to Californians about the pandemic, in light of everything you’ve been through?

Even before my family got sick, we were taking things pretty seriously. I’ve grown up around clinics and nurses my whole life because my mom was a nurse’s assistant for so long.

My mom was like the most careful person that I know. She wore P.P.E. to work, she didn’t go anywhere she didn’t need to go.

Even then, when my parents were hospitalized, I really realized this could happen to anybody. You’re realizing people are dying every day. Every single one of those families matters and has value. And, certainly, my resolve has strengthened on this issue.

I hope that talking about my family has helped others take it even more seriously — I’ve heard that from folks and that’s something I’m glad about.

[Track California’s coronavirus cases by county.]

Is there anything you wish the state government would do or had done differently?

You know, that’s a hard question. There’s so much we’re learning all the time, so I think anyone in retrospect would change a lot of things.

There’s so much we know about how transmission works. We learned in the last couple months just how much more dangerous closed spaces are.

I think with the information we had, the state has done a great job and the county and the Long Beach Health Department.

What’s missing is national standards. From Day 1, we were dealing with mixed messaging on masks.

What were some of the biggest challenges facing Long Beach before the pandemic? And how have those shifted?

The issues that existed before the pandemic exist today, but they’re just larger. You think about issues around income inequality and homelessness, the housing crisis that exists here in California, climate change — those are all huge.

And then, of course, the George Floyd murder and all of the protests and civil unrest that happened after that.

Here, it became so much more of a movement to do the right things faster.

And those are going to be even harder going forward.

If you think about an issue like housing and homelessness: We had a crisis before, and we’re in a position now where there’s going to be possibly more mass evictions and people have to work harder to access unemployment. So the economic recovery is going to be really tough.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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