Los Angeles City Hall has felt under siege for the past few years.
Three current or former City Council members have been charged or found guilty on charges of corruption. Former attorneys at the public prosecutor’s office face imprisonment in a legal scandal. The former head of the Ministry of Water and Energy is in prison for bribery. And Mayor Eric Garcetti has not left office to take up a post in India over allegations that the mayor’s office covered up sexual harassment by a senior adviser.
Another scandal broke out over the weekend when the release of a secret audio recording revealed a closed-door meeting at which the city council president, two of her colleagues and the county’s top labor officer discussed race and power racial terms behind closed doors .
Facing the backlash, Nury Martinez apologized and resigned as Council President on Monday, although she did not resign from the Council. The comments, she said, were made last year during heated talks about redefining the boundaries of the 15 council wards.
But the move did little to calm the furor, as Garcetti and US Senator Alex Padilla – Martinez’s one-time political ally – and a host of other politicians and groups called for her to leave the council entirely. They also called on the other politicians in the conversation, Councilors Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, whose term expires in December, to step down.
The turmoil comes at a time of imminent change, as voters look to inaugurate a new mayor, city attorney and city controller, as well as several new city council members in the Nov. 8 election.
Progressives hope for victories that advance their agenda, while longtime City Hall incumbents portray their challengers as either ill-equipped or too extreme to run the city.
Voters will also choose between Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso to tackle the homelessness crisis and run a city that former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has described as leaderless in recent interviews.
However, the town hall has also struggled with internal turbulence in recent decades. Mayor James Hahn’s final months in office in the early 2000s were marred by a federal investigation into possible corruption in city procurement.
But the resentment, the numerous indictments and the painfully slow transition of the mayor – the US Senate has yet to vote on whether to confirm him as ambassador to India – have City Hall viewers wringing their hands at a metropolis being sidelined.
Calls for changes to the city’s government structure echoed throughout Los Angeles on Monday.
“This is a good time to take stock of how you’re running the city,” said Fernando Guerra, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.
Guerra suggested re-examining the relationships between the mayor, city council, controller and city attorney — “the informal governance and how we all hold each other accountable.”
He also suggested that the city council follow the example of the state legislature and leave the entire process of redefining the city’s council districts to an independent commission.
Noting the turmoil at LA City Hall, West Hollywood Councilman Lindsey Horvath released a statement calling for “drastic political action to resolve the shift in trustworthy, transparent governance.”
Horvath, a candidate for borough chairperson, recommended increasing the number of seats on the LA City Council to have more representation and to turn to publicly funded elections.
Former LA City Council member Jan Perry said she listened to leaked audio files and was struck by the lack of group discussion about what would benefit all communities.
Perry was hurt by the 2012 City Council redistribution round when her South LA borough was largely separated from downtown, then a growing economic engine. The battles over these new district cards created deep fissures in the council.
Perry, who is running for the congressional seat vacated by Bass, urged voters to “dig deep” ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
“I’ve been involved in this work for 30 years and I’ve never seen it so bad,” Perry said of the riot at City Hall.
“I think Chicago and Philadelphia and other cities that have a history of scandals are feeling pretty good right now,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “They think, ‘It’s LA for once, not us. ”
With this recent scandal, “it’s a pretty damning picture,” he said.
The redistribution process usually involves open discussions about race, but the divisive and racist comments heard in the audio shocked individuals and groups across the city. De León and Cedillo have apologized and Cedillo said he did not make any racist remarks or mock his colleagues.
Los Angeles has seen dramatic demographic changes in the nearly half century since Tom Bradley, a black man, was elected mayor.
Even then, blacks made up less than 15% of the city’s population. By last year, their proportion of the population had declined to just under 8%, while Latinos had grown to over 48%. Also growing has been the number of Asian Americans who now make up more than 11% of the city of LA
Whites occupy six of the positions on the 15-member council, while they now make up just 28% of LA’s population.
Despite their smaller population, black officials hold three seats in the city, accounting for 20% of the seats on the council. Latinos, who make up nearly half of the city’s residents, hold less than 27% of the council seats.
Tensions have arisen because representation on the city council is viewed by participants as a “zero-sum game,” said Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Equity Research Institute. Pastor said that with 15 seats on the council, struggles over reallocation become emotionally charged as one congregation feels it is losing a seat while another feels it is gaining ground.
On Monday, the future makeup and leadership of the city council remained a question mark after the three city council members were called to step down in what could be a pitched battle to replace Martinez as the body’s head.
Los Angeles is on track to lose at least four council members — Cedillo, Paul Koretz, Mike Bonin and Joe Buscaino. A fifth, Councilor Mitch O’Farrell, is facing a tough re-election campaign. A sixth councilman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, was suspended and temporarily replaced by Legislative Counselor Heather Hutt.
If Martinez and De León step down, O’Farrell is defeated and Ridley-Thomas is convicted, the council could lose eight of its seats, a majority.
Those watching this week’s events said the setback was particularly painful because neighborhood-level leaders and activists have made strides to bring people of many races together to fight for common causes, like building more homes and raising the population City minimum wage.
Pastor, an expert on social and political movements, urged Angelenos not to forget how many times they have transcended racial and other differences to bring about historical change.
He cited Bradley’s election in 1973 — fueled by a multi-ethnic coalition — and the 2005 victory of Villaraigosa, the first Latin American mayor in well over a century, as well as successful struggles for better wages and improvements to the transit system.
“So you have a rich history of working together, much of which has been eclipsed in the last day and a half,” Pastor said. “But this other story also happened here. So in the City of Angels, the question becomes: will we fall back on our better angels from this story? Or will we fall back on our worst moments?”
David Zahniser, a Times contributor, contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-11/los-angeles-chaotic-political-landscape-nury-martinez-leaked-audio Nury Martinez racist comments upend L.A. city politics