Jeff Carr was a strapping soccer star who dreamed of turning pro while attending a small Christian college in Idaho. Instead, he became an evangelical minister, a community advocate in L.A. and a key player in City Hall as the budget crisis forced a wave of layoffs and service cuts.
As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's chief of staff, Carr heads a second-term leadership group charged with invigorating a mayoral agenda that has been wide on ambition but, in the view of many, narrow on accomplishment.
To admirers, Carr is a savvy, energetic, even charismatic leader with a distinctive pedigree, the adopted son of a preacher who followed his father to the ministry and now toils in a decidedly secular setting.
"Those [faith] values drive how I live my life, the decisions I make, how I treat people, how I try to manage, how I try to lead," Carr said in a recent interview.
But others see Carr as a macho figure failing to impose direction on a deeply divided staff of 200 serving a mayor who is both demanding and easily distracted.
"It's a tough job, but he hasn't corralled it all yet," said one department head who, like other critics, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the mayor or Carr. "There are factions in his office, and it's hard to know who to talk to get a real sense of direction."
A recent City Hall reorganization has added education, transportation and environmental issues to the domain of Carr, who already oversaw budget and public safety matters. In addition, Carr says he is asked to "make the trains run on time" and "fix things" — be it improving flood response or accommodating conservationists seeking to preserve land near the Hollywood sign. On occasion, the minister, who previously served as the city's anti-gang czar, must tread into delicate political terrain.
Carr was the point man on Villaraigosa's ill-fated utility rate hike campaign, which was sharply criticized by some City Council members for its winning-is-everything approach. The resulting standoff led to national headlines earlier this year about L.A. going broke as its politicians squabbled. Even Carr's top colleague, First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, looks back on it as a policy "debacle," a characterization disputed by Carr.
"I don't know if it was a debacle," said Carr, who rejects rumors of behind-the-scenes intrigue and discord among the mayor's top aides. "I'm plenty confident in who I am, in my role, and I'm not intimidated by other strong personalities."
Concerned about his legacy, Villaraigosa sought a strong team for his final term "especially since a lot of detractors and supporters thought he didn't have a lot to show for the first term," noted Jaime A. Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
However, Villaraigosa has faced criticism that he has lost focus and is disengaged, an assessment vehemently dismissed by Carr, who responds: "This mayor has not checked out."
Carr, 46, cuts an imposing figure at 6 feet, 2 inches with sandy hair and pale blue eyes. Standing next to his boss, Carr could easily be confused for one of the mayor's police escorts. The chief of staff possesses a self-assured speaking style born of years of public engagement. Yet he seems more at ease outside the office, sporting sweats and dropping in on parks where his anti-gang duties made him a frequent visitor.
Carr dons no clerical garb and his office betrays no outwardly religious artifact beyond a Bible on one shelf. He occasionally fills in as a guest preacher around town, but at City Hall his status as a man of the cloth stays mostly in the background.
Although many outsiders view evangelicals monolithically as conservative Republicans, Carr sees himself as the disciple of an earlier tradition, progressive 19th- and 20th-century evangelicals who were at the forefront of the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements.
"A lot of evangelicals think politics is evil," says Carr, who was reared near Seattle. "I say politics is not evil. It is a process by which you change policy."
At Northwestern Nazarene University, Carr was initially focused on becoming a professional soccer player. But, he says, exposure to Third World poverty while traveling abroad with an all-star team turned him toward the ministry, with an emphasis on social activism.
In 1987, Carr entered an urban ministry training program at the First Church of Nazarene, near 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, his first major exposure to the city.
"They had a rundown gym on the second floor," Carr recalls of the church and its working-class congregation. "They gave me a 10-speed bicycle and a basketball and said, 'Start a sports program for kids.' "
It turned into a 17-year commitment advocating for youth in some of L.A.'s poorest precincts. He was eventually named executive director of the Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the church.