WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was confirmed Wednesday by a divided Senate as the nation’s next ambassador to India, 20 months after he was first nominated by President Joe Biden and after weathering doubts about his truthfulness in a sexual harassment scandal involving a top adviser during his time at City Hall.
The 52-42 vote gave the administration a long-sought victory in filling one of the country’s highest profile diplomatic posts.
The president “believes that we have a crucial and consequential partnership with India and that Mayor Garcetti will make a strong and effective ambassador,” White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton said after the vote.
The session began with uncertain prospects for Garcetti, a two-term, progressive Democrat first nominated to the prominent diplomatic post by President Joe Biden in July 2021.
With several Democratic defections, Garcetti’s fate rested with enlisting Republicans in a chamber often divided along partisan lines He secured seven GOP votes to advance the nomination to a final vote.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “I met him personally. He clearly has an enormous amount of expertise about India. India’s been two years without an ambassador, and that is far too long. And I am going to support him.”
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who backed Garcetti in a committee vote, said that he, too, would be voting in favor.
“It’s a national security imperative to immediately have an ambassador in place in India. We can’t afford to wait any longer,” Young said.
The vacancy in the ambassadorship has left a significant diplomatic gap for the administration at a time of rising global tensions, including China’s increasingly assertive presence in the Pacific region and Russia’s war with Ukraine.
India, the world’s most populous democracy, is continuing to buy oil from Russia, while Western governments move to limit fossil fuel earnings that support Moscow’s budget, its military and its invasion of Ukraine. Russia also provides the majority of India’s military hardware.
The nomination has been freighted with questions about what the former mayor knew, and when, about sexual harassment allegations against his friend and once-close adviser, Rick Jacobs. A lawsuit alleges that Jacobs frequently harassed one of the then-mayor’s police bodyguards while Garcetti ignored the abuse or laughed it off.
Garcetti, the son of former Los Angeles district attorney Gil Garcetti, has repeatedly denied the claims. Jacobs has called the allegations against him “pure fiction.” The case is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
At a Senate committee hearing in December 2021, Garcetti said, “I never witnessed, nor was it brought to my attention, the behavior that’s been alleged. … If it had been, I would have immediately taken action to stop that.”
Wednesday’s vote tested Democratic loyalty to Biden, and also measured assessments of Garcetti’s judgment and trustworthiness, stemming from the City Hall allegations that shadowed him in the #MeToo era.
“I think we can find somebody that will do the job better,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of the Democrats who signaled opposition to Garcetti.
Garcetti also failed to win over Democrat Mark Kelly of Arizona, who said he had “serious concerns.”
Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said she felt frustration about the lack of an ambassador during a recent trip to India. She said it “gives an impression that the relationship isn’t important.”
“It really points to the internal dysfunction in the US Congress at the moment, and it makes it very hard for us to send the messages that we’re trying to send when it looks to our diplomatic partners that we don’t have our house in order,” she said.
“I think that’s been an issue for the last couple of years.”
Last May, a top Senate Republican released an investigation that concluded Garcetti “likely knew or should have known” that Jacobs was alleged to be sexually harassing city employees, a finding that appeared to contradict the mayor’s assertion that he was unaware of any inappropriate behavior. The 23-page report released by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa found it “extremely unlikely” that the then-mayor would not have been aware of the misconduct allegations.
The White House called the report a partisan smear.
In a final push to stop the nomination, Grassley released a statement Tuesday saying “the Biden administration has no credibility when it comes to protecting victims of sexual harassment.”
“What will it take for the Biden administration to believe the victims?” Grassley wrote. “On the one hand, the Biden administration says it supports victims. Yet, on the other hand, the Biden administration supports a nominee who enables misconduct that creates more victims.”
The nomination, first announced in July 2021, cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2022 but was not considered by the full Senate. Biden renominated Garcetti earlier this year, and the White House has defended him as a well-qualified candidate.
On a politically divided vote, the committee again advanced the nomination to the full Senate earlier this month. Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the panel, said that “new evidence” had raised questions about Garcetti’s judgment and prompted him to oppose the nomination.
Garcetti’s confirmation follows a contentious tenure at Los Angeles City Hall framed by the twin crises of homelessness and the pandemic, rising crime rates and sexual harassment and corruption scandals. The Los Angeles area, once known for boundless growth, has seen its population decline.
Garcetti took office in 2013 with a “back to basics” agenda that centered on fixing LA’s notoriously cratered streets and sidewalks. But those early ambitions faded as out-of-control homeless encampments transformed the city, then the government shuttered businesses, restaurants and schoolrooms — and shed hundreds of thousands of jobs — in the depths of the pandemic.
The former mayor has been credited with continuing a transit buildup in a city choked with traffic, and establishing tougher earthquake safety standards for thousands of buildings.
An Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar, he spent two decades in city government either as mayor or a city councilman and took a circuitous path towards the diplomatic corps. Ambassadorships are frequently a reward for political supporters.
Garcetti considered a 2020 White House run but later became part of Biden’s inner circle, emerging as a widely discussed possibility to join Biden’s Cabinet. He took himself out of the running after many of the plum jobs had been filled, saying the coronavirus crisis at the time made it impossible for him to step away from City Hall.
Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim, Lisa Mascaro, Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking and Stephen Groves contributed. Blood reported from Los Angeles.