WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti won confirmation Wednesday from a divided Senate as the nation's next ambassador to India, more than a year and a half after he was first nominated by President Joe Biden and after weathering doubts about his truthfulness in a sexual harassment scandal involving a City Hall adviser.
The 52-42 vote gave the administration a long-sought victory with several Republicans breaking party discipline for the vote that they said was critical to fill one of the country’s highest-profile diplomatic posts.
“It’s a national security imperative to immediately have an ambassador in place in India. We can’t afford to wait any longer,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, one of the Republican crossover votes.
The day began with uncertain prospects for Garcetti, a two-term, progressive Democrat first nominated to the diplomatic post by Biden in July 2021.
With several Democrats defecting, Garcetti's fate rested with Republican senators in a chamber often divided along partisan lines. He secured seven GOP votes, more than enough to make up for the Democratic breakaways.
Kansas Republican Roger Marshall said having an ambassador in place in India was vital in advancing relations among members of the “quad” — the U.S. India, Australia and Japan, which he said puts pressure on China.
“We don’t agree on all the different policies he did as mayor, but I think he’s a good person at heart and he would be a good ambassador,” Marshall said. He said on the allegations: “He answered my questions adequately.”
At the White House, spokesperson Olivia Dalton said Biden “believes that we have a crucial and consequential partnership with India and that Mayor Garcetti will make a strong and effective ambassador.”
The vacancy in the ambassadorship had 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 had 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 opposed 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 sensed frustration about the lack of an ambassador during a recent trip to India. She said it gave "an impression that the relationship isn’t important.”
“It really points to the internal dysfunction in the U.S. 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.
Last May, a top Senate Republican released an investigation t hat 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 was "extremely unlikely" that the mayor would not have been aware.
The White House called that report a partisan smear.
In a final push to stop the nomination, Grassley released a statement Tuesday saying his office identified at least 19 people who said they either witnessed inappropriate behavior by Jacobs or were victims of it.
“On the one hand, the Biden administration says it supports victims," Grassley wrote. "Yet, on the other hand, the Biden administration supports a nominee who enables misconduct that creates more victims.”
The legal nonprofit Whistleblower Aid, which sought to defeat the nomination, said the vote “will have a chilling effect on future attempts to hold enablers and perpetrators to account and cause victims and witnesses to think twice about the risks they are taking in coming forward.”
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 early 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 early this month, though Jim Risch of Idaho, 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 rising homelessness, the pandemic and high crime rates as well as 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 L.A.'s notoriously cratered streets and sidewalks. But those early ambitions faded as out-of-control homeless encampments transformed the city and then the government shuttered businesses, restaurants and schoolrooms — and shed hundreds of thousands of jobs — in the depths of the pandemic.
Still, 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 toward 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 the 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.