Mayor Robert Garcia spoke by phone with Business Journal editor Hayley Munguia from Washington, D.C., for his final annual interview as mayor on Thursday, Dec. 1, nearly a month after he was elected to represent the 42nd Congressional District. While Garcia was on Capitol Hill for orientation ahead of being sworn in next month, he spoke about his eight-year tenure as Long Beach’s top elected official and how he will continue to serve the city and the surrounding area in the U.S. House of Representatives. The interview has been edited for space considerations.
HM: This is the last Q&A you’ll be doing with the Business Journal as mayor. Can you start off by talking about how you view the last eight years here? What do you see as some of your biggest accomplishments?
RG: I look back at the last eight years, and I’m just really filled with a lot of pride, and it’s been an honor to serve as mayor. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity the community gave me to serve our city.
That part is something I’ll always be so grateful for, and I think back, and I’m just really proud of the work. There are still really serious challenges that exist—there were when I became mayor, there are today, and there will be for the next mayor. But I also think we took on some of the largest challenges we had, and we were very successful in some really, really great initiatives. Some of the things I’m really proud of—I think about, first and foremost, I’m grateful that we put forward the first infrastructure and revenue measure in over 40 years with Measure A. We performed what is now the single largest investment in infrastructure in the modern history of the city of Long Beach.
You can see the transformation that’s taken place. Our parks, libraries and marinas have all been fixed or are being renovated every single day because of Measure A, and if you’ve had your street fixed or you’ve seen a repair to something on the beach or seen a park open up, it’s because we worked hard to get it adopted, but also to have the voters make it permanent.
In the future, we’ll be able to look back and really see that this one measure transformed the city of Long Beach. I’m really proud of that.
HM: When I look at how Long Beach has changed over the last eight years, one thing that really stands out to me is the transformation of Downtown. There’s been a significant amount of development, which has added much-needed housing, but it’s also impacted the affordability of the area. And more recently, there have been concerns about crime and homelessness Downtown. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Downtown and the change it’s seen since you’ve been mayor.
RG: Clearly, I think we were focused on the transformation of Downtown as a key piece of what we wanted to accomplish, and we look back and we have developed or are in process of building nearly 10,000 units across the city, most of which are in the Downtown core. Look at how the skyline’s completely changed. There are new restaurants and retail and new offices and businesses, so Downtown itself is bringing folks in to live and to enjoy the spaces as it has been transformed.
We have also worked to ensure Downtown is a place for everyone. We passed one of the few inclusionary housing ordinances in the state of California to ensure new developments include affordable housing. That’s something that we worked really hard on.
We of course continue to work to continue to expand and support our tourism industry, which is really important. We’re in the process of recovering from the single largest hit to the economy that we’ve had in decades, and so we do have some challenges, and the next mayor and the next council are going to have to work on those—on a recovery that is centered around ensuring there’s enough housing for folks and that people feel safe.
HM: Speaking of COVID—as you said, that’s the biggest challenge the city and even the world has seen in our lifetime. You led the city through that, even as you were personally impacted by it. (Note: Garcia’s mother and stepfather died from COVID-19 in 2020.) What’s it like for you to look back on that time, and what are your thoughts on where the city’s recovery stands now?
RG: There’s never been a harder challenge that the city has faced, and certainly that I have faced in my life. It was so hard to see the struggles that people went through—people that lost family members, businesses that suffered immensely, folks that lost jobs, people that became homeless. There were impacts that we all faced everyday.
But I’m really proud of the city for how we stepped up. If you look back, I think it’s important to uplift that everyone from the president to the governor called our response to the pandemic a national model, and we led the country in our response to the pandemic—being the first city in the state to provide vaccines to teachers, to people with disabilities, being the first community to reach 99% of our senior population being vaccinated. The way that we got through the pandemic is something that really was a community effort, and I just give a lot of thanks to our health team, our clinics, our hospitals, our community organizations, everyone that was on the ground doing the work every single day. We were a great model, and other communities and other health departments looked to us for leadership.
It’s really important to recognize, I think, that we saved a lot of lives, and that’s definitely something I’ll always be proud of—the effort that the team and the city made.
As far as where we are today, there’s still a lot of work to do. The pandemic is not completely over yet.
Along with the health impacts, the pandemic has left serious challenges as it relates to the economy and safety. We have certainly bounced back with much of the job loss that we had. Most folks are back to work, and the job market is much better than it was, but it’s also left behind some challenges, particularly around folks who were already really struggling with housing insecurity and work, and we saw more folks fall into homelessness. We saw folks that were not able to recover, and that’s a real challenge that we have today as we move forward.
HM: When it comes to addressing some of these challenges that Long Beach continues to face, I’m curious to know how you’re thinking about continuing to serve the city, but as a member of Congress rather than as mayor. Are there any particular issues, or tools available, where you expect that you’ll be able to help Long Beach in a way that you couldn’t as mayor?
RG: Working at a federal level is a different opportunity to get big things done. There’s an enormous opportunity to bring home significant federal resources to improve our ports, our infrastructure, our airport, to make sure communities in Long Beach and southeast LA have the resources that are necessary, particularly around focusing on environmental justice issues, cleaning the air, converting trucks to electric fleet—these are things that only Congress has the resources to do.
I’ve known this as mayor: We can only do so much as a city, with our resources and budget. But we often need the federal government to step in and provide those large sums of money to be able to implement these huge projects.
But beyond the infrastructure projects or the grants, I’m also really focused on making sure that I am representing the people of our community and our district. This is a community that values progress, that uplifts everyone, that is centered on a progressive view of uplifting civil rights and voting rights and supporting the ability of women to have autonomy over themselves and making sure that we are protecting our democracy. These are things that are important to Long Beach, and these are things I plan on fighting for in Congress.
HM: One current example of an issue that impacts Long Beach but only Congress can intervene on is the labor deal that was just approved to avoid a rail strike. If you were in Congress now, how would you have voted on that? (Note: Hours before this interview, the Senate voted to approve the deal but rejected a resolution to provide paid sick leave to rail workers.)
RG: I would have voted, certainly, to ensure that we give paid sick leave to rail workers. Long Beach is largely dependent on a successful rail program and infrastructure, obviously, coming in and out of the port—it’s a huge part of our economy. It’s not acceptable that large rail companies choose not to provide paid sick leave for employees. I think that I certainly will continue to advocate for workers and would have voted for the amendment in front of Congress to provide seven days of paid sick leave. I think that’s the bare minimum of what we should be giving our rail workers who are working so hard every single day.
Certainly, averting a shutdown or a strike is important, but we also have to center workers and ensure that people are being treated fairly.
HM: Looking back to Long Beach specifically, we have a new mayor who will be succeeding you—Rex Richardson, whom you endorsed, as well as a new City Council that will be sworn in soon. What are your thoughts on the results of those elections and what they mean for Long Beach?
RG: First, I’m really proud of Rex being elected mayor. He’s been just an excellent vice mayor for the city and a great leader and really just a great voice on issues around homelessness and building affordable housing.
Rex won with more votes than anyone in the modern history of the city. He received more votes for mayor than me, than Bob Foster or Beverly O’Neill, and certainly that has partly to do with the election dates that have changed, so now we’re aligned with state elections. But that also tells me something, and it tells me when more people vote—when more folks from North Long Beach or West Long Beach or Central Long Beach are given an opportunity or encouraged to vote, they’re a community who comes together and elects the first Black person to serve as mayor, and that just gives me so much pride.
HM: We’ve spoken a bit about the challenges Long Beach is facing right now. How do you feel about Rex’s ability to confront those challenges?
RG: I think that Rex is well-prepared to take on the challenges. There’s no question what our biggest challenges are. The single largest issue in front of us is our homelessness crisis. It’s a crisis for the entire state of California, every big city in the state. But if anybody has the experience and drive to take this on, it’s absolutely Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, and I’m confident he’s going to do everything he can to solve this, with a great City Council. And they’re not alone in this fight. I will represent Long Beach in Congress, and I will be there every single day, working with Mayor Richardson and with the council to make sure they have the resources they need and we’re doing everything we can at the federal level to support Long Beach and the rest of the state.