How a fight over a City Council seat is dividing Black L.A.

As a community attorney, Joe Delgado has learned to expect dysfunction from the City of Los Angeles.

For months, he and others from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have been trying to get help for hundreds of black and Hispanic tenants living in slum-like conditions at the Chesapeake Apartments, a sprawling complex in the heart of LA’s 10th borough.

“They have identified potentially 160 units that are exposed to lead where children live,” Delgado told me. “And no action has been taken to come and do blood tests to make sure these kids don’t have permanent brain damage.”

But as difficult as it was for him to get the city to act, chances are it’s going to get a lot worse.

On Tuesday, an LA County Superior Court judge ruled that Herb Wesson, the sacked councilman temporarily representing the 10th Circuit, “can no longer hold functions” of the job. For now anyway.

It’s just the latest twist in an ill-fated political drama that has been unfolding since October, when Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was charged with federal bribery and then suspended from the city council.

Wesson has served in his place since March.

But now he, too, is barred from voting, from meetings with constituents, and from introducing proposed regulations.

And that means once again that the tenants of the Chesapeake Apartments — along with hundreds of thousands of residents in the 10th Ward neighborhoods that stretch across South LA and Mid-City — have lost a much-needed top figure on the city council.

“They are already living in s- conditions,” Delgado lamented. “And then when they organize a solution, they run into obstacles like this from the city, which should be doing the complete opposite and focusing on how to expedite what they need.”

In fact, even with LA’s reputation for dysfunctional politics, this is bad. There’s also a lot of blame for it.

Ultimately, however, it was City Council President Nury Martinez who decided to make a bad situation in the 10th Ward worse, leading to power struggles, particularly in the black community.

She was the one who opened the door to Tuesday’s ruling by appointing Wesson as the district’s representative in the first place. And the rest of the city council then walked through that door, confirming it with a unanimous vote.

As such, Martinez bears most of the responsibility for what has gone wrong since then, and also has a responsibility to help make things right again.

Because electing Wesson, even temporarily, even with support from South LA voters, was always a legally dubious decision. He had already served the three full terms on the city council, the maximum allowed by the city charter, and it was questionable whether he would be able to return.

And so, unsurprisingly, Ridley-Thomas’ allies, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and several 10th District voters, filed a lawsuit challenging Wesson’s appointment.

And then, also not surprisingly, Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel sided with the plaintiffs on Tuesday, saying they would likely prove Wesson couldn’t return to the city council because he was fired.

In response, Martinez complained that it was “wrong that a group of individuals with suspicious intent are working to block over 250,000 residents from being represented on this council.”


Or maybe she could have simply prioritized the needs of the 10th Precinct residents, many of whom were still dealing with the fallout from Ridley-Thomas’ unexpected indictment and suspension.

Martinez could have appointed someone from his staff, making it easier to continue constituent services, such as with Chesapeake Apartments tenants. Or appoint someone more likely to have a good relationship with the district since Wesson lost his last run for office to Supervisor Holly Mitchell.

At least she could have appointed someone who didn’t immediately sue.

In fact, Martinez can still do all of those things.

In her verdict, Strobel made it clear that she would think it would be good if someone were appointed as the district’s proxy. It just can’t be Wesson.

On Wednesday, Martinez Wesson’s chief of staff appointed Heather Hutt as the non-voting caretaker.

“My clients have no problem appointing someone as a temporary representative,” SCLC of Southern California attorney John Sweeney told me Wednesday. “They just want a voice in the process.”


A man speaks into a microphone

On Tuesday, an LA County Superior Court judge ruled that Herb Wesson, seen in 2019, “can no longer serve” from his provisional seat on the city council.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, the damage has been done in the 10th Precinct, particularly in South LA

Gina Fields, president of the McClung Bronson Block Club in Leimert Park, said she’s seen the Black Los Angeles political class split into two camps: Wesson supporters and Ridley Thomas supporters.

Both men have a deep legacy in the community. Wesson was the first black city council president, and Ridley-Thomas is, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, put it, a “one-man institution in black politics.”

Many voters and stakeholders have told me they feel caught in the middle. They respect both men and don’t want to choose or make enemies of one.

“It tears us apart. That’s not what either of us wanted,” Fields told me. “It’s not that these two men are both fighting for their political careers. It’s like they were put in this position where they have to do that.”

Ridley-Thomas allies have been campaigning on his behalf for months, reminding anyone who will listen that he has denied the federal charges and therefore deserves his seat on the city council again.

The SCLC of Southern California, of which Ridley-Thomas was executive director in the 1980s, set the tone early on. Just weeks after the indictment and suspension, the civil rights group held a screening of “Selma” followed by a panel discussion on disenfranchisement of black voters in the 10th District.

“If you don’t like that you don’t have a voice now, if you don’t like that they try to seize and suppress and try to suppress and try to keep our voices down by getting our elected leader out of the way, then you have to say something!” Pastor William D. Smart Jr. told the audience.

There were also protests, including one outside LA City Hall attended by civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. James Lawson Jr.’s contemporary and his longtime friend during a trip to Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Wesson has upped the ante by quickly firing two of Ridley-Thomas’ longtime associates, including his former chief of staff, who had served as the district’s first non-voting janitor, and bringing in his own people.

“A lot of stakeholders feel trapped in between because everyone has the utmost respect for these two men,” Fields told me. “And so the city doing what it’s done has led to people’s minds being pitted one against the other and that’s tearing our community apart. If we all pull in different directions, we will get nowhere.”

At this point, many just want someone who can vote on the city council. Fields said she would prefer Ridley-Thomas or Wesson, but “we need qualified, talented and knowledgeable representation and that’s what we’re asking for.”

And fast.

At the Chesapeake Apartments, Delgado watched the tenants get sicker with each passing week. Breathing problems and horrible rashes from what they believe to be black mold but have not been able to test. Reports of bugs and even raw sewage.

Since Wesson was on hiatus and had been unengaged too many times before, he challenged Martinez to engage.

“Now that he can’t do it or his staff can’t do it, they need to define what the city will do instead,” Delgado said. “Have a chat with the voters so they know, you know? You need to.” How a fight over a City Council seat is dividing Black L.A.

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