L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti wears his Navy uniform during a military-related… (Los Angeles Fire Department )
If he manages to get elected, Eric Garcetti may be the first mayor of Los Angeles who slips away for a little clandestine activity at a secret locale — and doesn't mind if his constituents find out about it.
The city councilman and mayoral candidate's eight-year commitment to the U.S. Naval Reserve's intelligence service runs through the end of the year. He would like to extend it beyond that, if possible.
Garcetti, who faces City Controller Wendy Greuel in a May 21 runoff, has focused only fleetingly on his military service since the start of the mayor's race last year. That may change, however, as the three-term city lawmaker tries to show voters that he's more than just another bleeding heart on the city's liberal-leaning council.
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"He may have been holding this part of his biography in reserve a bit during the first round," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "He was trying to consolidate the liberal base. He may think it's a much more effective appeal in the runoff, when he is trying to peel off some conservative voters."
Voters might wonder how Lt. Garcetti could handle roughly 40 days a year of training and exercises with the Navy while holding down a demanding office. But the time crunch didn't become much of an issue during his time on the council, even for the six years when he served in the demanding role of president.
More vexing might be how Garcetti's political attire, accessorized with hunger strikes for immigrant rights, protests against sexual violence and sponsorship of a council resolution against the war in Iraq, can be retailored into a naval uniform, complete with an Information Dominance Warfare officer's pin.
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Garcetti, 42, said his eclectic resume is not as incongruous as it might seem.
He believes his disparate interests are all tied together by the notion of public service, a concept he said he embraced early, in part because of his paternal grandfather's service in the U.S. Army during World War II. Salvador Garcetti was a Mexican immigrant and a bit of a wrong-way kid until his service straightened him out and helped him earn his citizenship, his grandson said.
Another encounter during his college years — when Garcetti traveled from Columbia University to Burma to work with democracy activists — reignited the call to service. A former U.S. Army colonel, Bob Helvey, taught the rebels tactics in nonviolent resistance.
Helvey recalled that Garcetti showed both an interest in the humanitarian work and had already begun to consider a possible run for political office. Some saw his academic training — including a master's degree from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs — as natural preparation for a spot in Congress.
"I told him it would be mighty nice to have a little bit of experience in the military" to round out his world view, Helvey said. "I suggested military intelligence because he has a good mind and it's not a dirty job and you have a better chance of staying alive."
Garcetti said he felt too many Democrats had shied away from the military after the Vietnam War. He believed many in his generation had made few sacrifices for the world around them.
Even as he pushed for the 2003 city resolution condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Garcetti was careful to praise the military. He testified to "our unquestionable pride in and support for the men and women of the armed services."
In 2005, he signed on as an ensign in the Navy Reserve.
"For me there was a decision, would I ... regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't serve, especially in the time after 9/11 and especially given my own family's experience?" he said. "It's always been a strong value."
The reserve requires one weekend of "drilling"— instruction and training across a range of disciplines — per month and two weeks a year of more intensive training. Despite a frenetic schedule, Garcetti has managed to complete those requirements.
In one particularly hectic stretch, in May of 2009, Garcetti had to work a graveyard shift for an extended Navy exercise in Rhode Island, then fly back to L.A. to help stave off a hiring freeze in the Los Angeles Police Department. Once he had voted, he immediately flew east again for another overnight shift at his Navy post.
His public Navy record shows no blemishes. Garcetti earned a marksman's ribbon with a 9-millimeter pistol and the Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal for increasing "mobilization readiness and the unit's ability to support the fleet."
Unlike some politicians and others, who request a special status so that they will not be deployed overseas, Garcetti has been eligible for deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan or other hot spots, according to Navy Reserve officials. In recent years, many spots have been filled by reservists who volunteered because they could not find work on the home front.