Los Angeles Mayor’s Path to U.S. Ambassadorship Is Constricting

LOS ANGELES — For nearly a year, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has been “between two worlds,” as he put it in an interview, waiting to be confirmed as the Biden administration’s ambassador to India while the high-stakes race to succeed him plays out in the nation’s second-largest city.

That sense of limbo became even stronger after a Senate report released this week suggested that Mr. Garcetti had ignored a pattern of sexual harassment by one of his top aides. The claim, which the mayor denies, threatens to derail an already drawn-out appointment, casts a shadow over his final months leading a Democratic stronghold and throws his political future into question.

The delay has also left the United States without a permanent envoy in one of the most populous countries at a critical time: India has remained steadfastly neutral on Russia’s war in Ukraine and has continued to buy Russian oil, undermining bans in the United States and Europe.

The 23-page report details the findings of an investigation led by Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, who in March asked to delay Mr. Garcetti’s confirmation, citing “numerous credible allegations from multiple whistle-blowers” of misconduct by Rick Jacobs, a close adviser to Mr. Garcetti and his former deputy chief of staff.

“Based on witness testimony, this behavior was pervasive, widespread and notorious,” the report found, adding that “it is more likely than not that Mayor Garcetti either had personal knowledge of the sexual harassment or should have been aware of it.”

The senator’s investigation followed months of reporting by local news media on Mr. Jacobs’s behavior. A former member of the mayor’s security detail also sued the city, accusing Mr. Jacobs of sexual harassment.

Mr. Garcetti’s office again denied that the mayor saw or heard about sexual harassment, and said that the report contained only “false, repackaged allegations that have been proven false by multiple unbiased investigations and reviews,” according to a statement from Dae Levine, a spokeswoman for the mayor. Mr. Jacobs, who has denied wrongdoing, did not immediately return a call for comment.

With the release of the report, Mr. Grassley also lifted his hold on the nomination, which President Biden announced in July. A spokesman for Mr. Grassley, Taylor Foy, said the senator took on the issue only after a whistle-blower contacted his office and asked for help.

“The report speaks for itself,” Mr. Foy said. “He put it out for the benefit of his colleagues.”

Mr. Garcetti, who cannot run for mayor this year because of term limits, said he was ready to move forward.

“While I strongly disagree with the opinion reached in this report, I am pleased that Senator Grassley has lifted his hold, and hope that my nomination by the president can be considered by the Senate soon,” he said in a statement.

Rick Jacobs, Mr. Garcetti’s former deputy chief of staff, has been accused of sexual harassment.Credit…Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

Hundreds of Mr. Biden’s nominees for Senate-confirmed posts have languished amid a broad Republican blockade, and the White House dismissed the investigation into Mr. Garcetti as “a partisan hit job” meant to drag out yet another confirmation.

“The president has confidence in Mayor Garcetti and believes he will be an excellent representative in India at a critical moment and calls for the Senate to swiftly confirm him,” Chris Meagher, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.

He also noted that the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had unanimously voted to advance Mr. Garcetti’s nomination after “reviewing these matters thoroughly” at a December hearing.

In Los Angeles, the maelstrom about the accusations against Mr. Jacobs is just one of many scandals at City Hall. And some local observers say that Mr. Garcetti’s stymied ascent to the Biden administration is an indictment of the mayor’s leadership rather than a simple manifestation of national partisan division.

“Predators can only continue to abuse when people in positions of power enable them, and Mayor Garcetti, unfortunately, is just such a powerful enabler,” Naomi Seligman, a former spokeswoman for the mayor who testified in a deposition that Mr. Jacobs kissed her on the mouth without her consent, said in a statement. “Given the overwhelming evidence, President Biden should immediately withdraw Mayor Garcetti’s nomination.”

While Mr. Grassley’s report does not make a decisive conclusion that Mr. Garcetti knew about his aide’s behavior, the idea that he was completely unaware of what has been widely described as an open secret “strains our understanding of workplaces,” said Jessica Levinson, who teaches election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and follows local politics closely.

That is particularly true, Ms. Levinson said, because Mr. Jacobs was someone “handpicked to help the mayor because the mayor knew him.”

Ms. Levinson said that dynamic might make Mr. Grassley’s report more compelling even to Democrats. Some Democratic senators expressed concerns about Mr. Garcetti’s nomination, both before and after Mr. Grassley’s office released its report, although none have said outright that they will not vote for his confirmation.

Whether or not the mayor joins the Biden administration — he quickly supported Mr. Biden after ending his own presidential bid in 2020 — the path to higher elected office is far from clear for Mr. Garcetti, and his options have narrowed over the course of his tenure.

Mr. Garcetti, 51, has in the past been criticized for spending too much time out of the state, shoring up his national Democratic Party connections, instead of digging into the thorny challenges plaguing his hometown.

And although the mayor of Los Angeles has less power than counterparts in cities like New York, Mr. Garcetti is often blamed for the region’s homelessness crisis, which has gotten worse under his watch.

In an annual survey of satisfaction among county residents, conducted by the Los Angeles Initiative at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, the mayor’s favorability ratings had slumped dramatically since 2020, to 45 percent from 62 percent two years ago.

Still, Ms. Levinson said there was still a path for Mr. Garcetti.

“I think we are a nation of amnesiacs,” she said. “He’s a young guy, he’s a smart guy, he’s an ambitious guy. I think he’s a good campaigner in a lot of ways. If he doesn’t want this to be the end, I don’t think it has to be.”

Shawn Hubler contributed reporting.

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