In an election year reportedly marked by public concerns about rising crime and declining law enforcement, Los Angeles is poised to elect its first abolitionist city councilman.
Wrap your thoughts around this one.
It even took a while for Euniss Hernandez — the abolitionist in question — to get over the shock. But as we spoke late last week, she seemed to have a better understanding of what happened at the Eastside race — and, more importantly, why it happened — better than most people.
It’s all part of what the 32-year-old community activist calls a “tidal wave of progressiveness” sweeping over LA
On Friday, Hernandez turned a narrow lead into a likely insurmountable lead over incumbent Councilman Gil Cedillo. In fact, she has already declared victory to represent District 1, which stretches from Highland Park through Elysian Park and Chinatown to Pico-Union. Cedillo has yet to admit.
Elsewhere on the Eastside, union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, who has campaigned for fewer police officers and repealing the law allowing the city to remove homeless encampments, has overtaken incumbent Councilman Mitch O’Farrell in District 13.
On the Westside, where voters in District 11 tried to recall Councilor Mike Bonin over proliferation of tents in Venice, civil rights attorney Erin Darling is spearheading her promise to tackle homelessness without criminalization and strengthen renter protections.
Citywide races are similar.
For Controller, progressive activist Kenneth Mejia was the top voter, facing City Councilman Paul Koretz in a runoff in November. For the city attorney, civil rights attorney Faisal Gill is leading the charge after promising to repeal the city’s anti-camping law and pause prosecutions to assess the “unacceptably broad” misdemeanor charge.
And in the mayoral race, Rep. Karen Bass has outperformed billionaire developer Rick Caruso, with those who voted by letter overwhelmingly choosing their more liberal approach to tackling crime, policing and homelessness.
“This progressive increase has made it competitive,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State LA’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “And that’s a big deal.”
The question is what this surge or tidal wave of progressiveness means for Los Angeles – if it means anything at all.
“Primates are not very visible, but they really reward the organization because, of course, turnout is generally lower than in general elections,” Sonenshein said. “And when you have a well-organized group that’s out there pushing progressive issues, like there’s this year, there are a number of organizations that can really make a difference.”
However, Hernandez suspects something else is going on. Something that is the culmination of years of hard work by progressive activists and marks the beginning of something far more enduring.
“I think the base of voters here in LA is closer to the issues and crises that are happening,” she told me. “And so many of them know what better solutions are or what we can do differently. It’s what I found when I knocked on doors.”
Los Angeles is one of the most progressive cities in the country, but it’s rarely considered the state’s most liberal city.
This title usually goes to San Francisco.
“There’s a perception of San Francisco as being more liberal than LA,” Sonenshein said, “back to the days when LA was more conservative than it is today. I’m talking about 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
Of course, the city by the bay’s reputation, which was largely formed in the pre-technology and counterculture years, has taken an undeserved blow these days.
The same primary that put Hernandez in office removed progressive Chesa Boudin from the position of San Francisco District Attorney. Not “overwhelming” as originally reported, but by a much narrower margin of 55% to 45% than most ballots had received.
However, given Boudin’s national profile, it was that vote that generated a thousand ill-conceived thoughts and several thousand speculative tweets. The assumptions were enough to prompt Mayor London Breed to set the record straight.
“That doesn’t mean criminal justice reform is going anywhere in San Francisco,” Breed said the morning after the primary. “It is a wrong choice to think that we must abandon criminal justice reform or police reform to focus on accountability.”
Still, there are signs that progressive politics in the city, while certainly not on the decline, has in some ways peaked.
“People didn’t realize that LA has become a much more progressive city than it was,” Sonenshein explained, “and I don’t know that San Francisco has changed that much.”
Contributing to this has been the influx of tech wealth, followed by the housing affordability crisis. San Francisco has become a much wealthier city than it used to be and far less of a working-class city, with even teachers being forced to become super-commuters. And that has had an impact on diversity.
“Everyone saw ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco,'” Melina Abdullah, a professor of pan-African studies at Cal State LA, quipped about the 2019 film, whose plot sounds exactly like it does.
“You start to see — I mean, maybe you don’t even start — what you see are people who we would assume are liberal, have their class-based interests, and vote their class, rather than vote along with work . Great people of color,” she said.
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, has studied this particular phenomenon in relation to progressive prosecutors. He found that support for such district attorneys, and for criminal justice reform in general, is strongest in counties with high black percentages in the US.
Support for criminal justice reform by white progressives tends to be unreliable over time, he said. We saw it here in LA as some of the loudest voices for Black Lives Matter in 2020 are now among the loudest pushing for LA County Dist to be recalled. atty George Gascon.
“Crime is an abstraction for most of them — for most of us,” Pfaff told me. “You read about it, you hear about it, but the moment you get close to the crime it’s kind of shocking and horrifying. But the black community isn’t just witnessing the violence, it’s witnessing the policing. It’s not abstract for them. The basic humanization explains why there is more support for reform.”
That’s another thing in favor of progressive politics in Los Angeles, which could make getting rid of Gascón harder than getting rid of Boudin in San Francisco.
While working-class people of color continue to be forced out of the city of LA, many remain in the county, moving to Palmdale and other cheaper high desert locations. Those based outside of San Francisco generally have no choice but to leave the city and county since the borders are essentially the same.
For that reason, Abdullah says that even though Los Angeles housing costs are rising and wages are outstripping her, she’s not too nervous — especially after the primary.
“It’s time for those who want a progressive agenda to make sure we don’t go the San Francisco route,” she said.
Hernandez’s journey to the forefront of progressive politics in Los Angeles was a detour.
The daughter of immigrants and lifelong Highland Park resident lives in the same home her mother bought decades ago — and it’s still paying off. She laments the gentrification that has transformed the neighborhood at a time when the median income in District 1 is about $35,000.
“I’ve seen homes next to mine that sold for $1.3 million,” Hernandez told me. “I’ve seen the investment and the development, but also the displacement that comes with it.”
That made her a proponent, blocking as much market-priced housing as possible, instead pushing for stronger tenant protections and land trusts to increase the stock of affordable housing.
As Hernandez grew up, she also said she saw friends and family members “affected by criminalization” because of the lack of mental health services, treatment for drug addicts, and poverty.
“I wanted to be a police officer,” she said. “I thought I could have been the cop who didn’t arrest my friend for selling weed. That belief ruined his life.”
A college course exploring the systemic forces behind the war on drugs made her a community activist and abolitionist. She joined the Drug Policy Alliance and worked on the passage and subsequent implementation of a number of state-level criminal justice reform measures, including Proposition 47.
Today she is perhaps best known for co-founding La Defensa, a group that advocates for alternatives to criminalization and incarceration and for the election of progressive judges. As executive director, she was an architect of Measure J, which voters approved in 2020 and prompted LA County to invest $100 million in community services, including youth programs.
Now Hernandez, the once aspiring cop, has set her sights on destroying the power that “harmful departments,” including but not limited to the LAPD, hold over Angelenos.
“People think abolition is like no cops, and that’s it. But we have to be more strategic,” she explained. “You actually have to create the answers you want to see. It’s about not substituting one harmful thing for another. It’s about replacing a malicious system with something that’s actually more supportive.”
Hernandez paused, searching for the right words.
“It’s about values,” she finally said. “It’s a framework for the system.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-20/los-angeles-leads-san-francisco-progressive-election-california Why L.A. could top San Francisco as most progressive city