Greenville, SC (CNN)Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, introducing himself to local party leaders and voters in this critical presidential primary state this week, said the Democratic Party could no longer "paint states one color" and vowed to help discouraged Democratic voters here "start winning again."
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti dismisses 'Kardashian' stereotype in South Carolina debut
He also asked South Carolina voters to look past the Los Angeles stereotype, telling predominantly black voters at a town-hall-style session in lower Richland County on Wednesday, "Yes, it's true, I come from Los Angeles, and we have a few more Kardashians than you do, but we are mostly not Kardashians."
The 47-year-old Democratic mayor — a Jewish Mexican-American and the youngest mayor in LA's history — traveled more than 2,000 miles cross-country to the Palmetto State officially as part of the job policy work that he is doing with the nonprofit group that he chairs, Accelerator for America.
But at events in the state Wednesday and Thursday, Garcetti, who has acknowledged he is considering a 2020 White House bid, also appeared to be testing out a national message in a state which will help choose the Democratic Party's next presidential nominee.
State Democratic lawmakers here point out that President Barack Obama did very little to help build up the apparatus of state parties across the country, despite his fundraising prowess. At an intimate lunchtime gathering of party activists in Greenville on Thursday, Garcetti vowed to help rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure from the ground up, particularly in red states like South Carolina.
Garcetti also headlined a closed-door Democratic fundraiser Wednesday night with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. The event built goodwill with local party officials, who have seen their coffers dip into the hundreds of dollars, according to filings with the State Ethics Commission.
"When you have someone who takes the time, and brings their gravitas and star power in, it's huge," said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative and CNN political analyst.
At the town hall event Wednesday evening, Garcetti cast himself as the mayor of a working class city.
"We are mostly nurses, and firefighters, and factory workers, and janitors, and people who have dreams and hopes and are as frustrated as you are about the direction of this country," he said.
And on Thursday, Garcetti positioned himself as a Washington outsider, offering his own analysis of the divisions in the country.
"Some people, if you read the news, would say that we live in two Americas. There's the coasts and the heartland; there's the East Coast and the West Coast; there's rural and urban areas," Garcetti said in Greenville. "I don't think that's the division in our country at all. There are two Americas: but there's Washington and the rest of us."
Before Garcetti's visit this week, a number of South Carolina party operatives expressed skepticism about the political appeal of a West Coast mayor from one of the most liberal cities in America to the culturally conservative voters of South Carolina.
Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a backer of former Vice President Joe Biden, said he believes the 2020 race for his party's nomination is wide open. But he says he finds it difficult to imagine Garcetti or his fellow high-profile mayors — Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans or Pete Buttigieg of South Bend — making that jump to the White House.
"If Joe (Biden) were not to run again, do we really need a guy from California?" Harpootlian said in an interview in Columbia this week. "The last president from California was Richard Nixon. Leaping from Mayor to President, I can't think of the last one that did that. ... Cities have huge problems" that could create vulnerabilities, he said.
South Carolina voters, Harpootlian noted, are far more conservative on issues like abortion, the death penalty, gay rights and guns, than either Garcetti or California US Sen. Kamala Harris, another charismatic star of her party.
"When I say ultra-liberal -- compared to the average Democrat here, they are way to the left, and that's not what we need for 2020," he said. "We need somebody representing -- not the Trump voter -- but the blue-collar Democrat who did not vote in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, because they did not like her."
At the Wednesday town hall event, Garcetti focused on the loss of manufacturing and middle-class jobs in Southern California and highlighted how he is attempting to create jobs through major infrastructure projects in Los Angeles.
He also seemed cognizant of the cultural sensitivities on issues like gun control here in a state that deeply values Second Amendment rights.
Fielding questions from voters about what actions he would take after the recent massacre at a high school in Florida, he struck a pragmatic tone on gun rights, an issue that dogged both Obama and Clinton in the South.
In addition to new gun control measures like protections to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, Garcetti said, "It is isn't about legislation, it's personal responsibility."
"And that's where the civics piece comes in," he continued. "What are we teaching our young people? How to be Americans. How to respect history but also to take care of themselves."
He said that before his 6-year-old daughter Maya goes to a friend's house to play in Los Angeles, he and his wife, Amy Wakeland, have begun asking the friend's parents if there's a gun in the house and whether it is locked up.
Garcetti also spoke in depth about the bravery and eloquence of the Florida students who advocated for gun control after the mass shooting at their school, citing them as an example of a new generation of political activists.
Garcetti gestured to a woman who had told him about her activism during the civil rights movement earlier in the town hall: "Just as you were a 19-year-old who made history, there are 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds making history right now," Garcetti said. "They didn't wait for anyone else to organize them; they had a die-in in front of the White House the next day. And, lo and behold, President Trump is now going back on the bump stock stuff, which he should have done after Las Vegas. But it was them that changed him."
"As a leader," he said, referencing the young Parkland activists Wednesday night. "I get out of the way."