O​utrage in LA: Can reforms help heal wounds left by City Council racism?

O​utrage in LA: Can reforms help heal wounds left by City Council racism?

California’s attorney general said this week that his office plans to investigate last year’s voter redistricting process in Los Angeles. The once-in-a-decade redrawing of the voting districts was the context for a secretly recorded conversation among Latino City Council members whose raw power-scheming over district boundaries and blatant racist comments sparked an explosion of outrage and hurt when the audio was made public on Sunday. 

Could the transparency of an independent commission restore integrity and trust in LA’s government, as well as heal this racial gash in a city famed for its diversity and its racial clashes? Today’s setup allows City Council final say over their own district lines – drawn by a commission that is appointed by council members and other elected officials. LA voters would have to approve a ballot measure to convert that to an independent redistricting commission. 

In a city this diverse and complex, “you want to find ways for everyone to win, and not make it a zero-sum game,” says former City Council member Zev Yaroslavsky, who also served two decades on the LA County Board of Supervisors. “What went on in that room was the philosophy of, ‘If I win, you have to lose,’ and that’s not true.”   

Why We Wrote This

Backroom politics were on full display in Los Angeles this week, where a secret recording exposed blunt racism among leaders. Angelenos are examining deep divisions in their diverse city, while a state investigation is hoping to restore trust in leadership.

California’s attorney general said this week that his office plans to investigate last year’s voter redistricting process in Los Angeles. The once-in-a-decade redrawing of the voting districts was the context for a secretly recorded conversation among Latino City Council members whose raw power-scheming over district boundaries and blatant racist comments sparked an explosion of outrage and hurt when the audio was made public on Sunday. 

Whether the state’s highest law enforcement official finds civil or criminal liability remains to be seen, but some people are now calling for an overhaul of the decennial mapping process. Proponents, including the outgoing Los Angeles attorney, are demanding that City Council members no longer have a say in the maps, and that the process be tasked entirely to an independent commission – as was approved by voters for California’s congressional and state legislative districts in 2008.

Could the transparency of an independent commission restore integrity and trust in LA’s government, as well as heal this racial gash in a city famed for its diversity and its racial clashes? 

Why We Wrote This

Backroom politics were on full display in Los Angeles this week, where a secret recording exposed blunt racism among leaders. Angelenos are examining deep divisions in their diverse city, while a state investigation is hoping to restore trust in leadership.

“Because of the huge degree of distrust that this has already fostered and will continue to foster … we absolutely must have an independent redistricting commission,” says Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. But that’s a baseline response, she says. “We need something else to reset” city government because of the serious consequences of intertwining politics with racism. 

Police officers stand guard as people shout slogans before a Los Angeles City Council meeting, Oct. 11, 2022. Two city council members are resisting pressure to resign after a recording surfaced of them joining in racist banter during a private meeting to discuss redistricting.

What was said in that private conversation is “horrible and should never be tolerated,” says Dr. Romero. “When it’s intertwined with politics, it’s literally talking about people’s life chances,” because local government is so influential on people’s lives.

Dr. Romero laments not only the further erosion of trust in the political process, but also fears messaging that casts all Latino political leaders as racist pols out for themselves, playing a zero-sum game that pits one group against another. 

Meanwhile, she says, a “grenade” has just been tossed on decades of interracial community-building in Los Angeles, particularly between Black and Latino residents.

The recording

The recording, published by the Los Angeles Times after appearing on Reddit without an identified source, revealed a candid conversation among City Council President Nury Martinez, council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and LA County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, as they discussed redistricting of City Council seats. Ms. Martinez and Mr. Herrera have both since resigned their positions. Mr. Cedillo and Mr. de León are resisting calls to do the same – despite widespread pressure, including from President Joe Biden. 

The 80-minute recording from October 2021 is punctuated with profanities and crass references to fellow council members. In a particularly shocking exchange, Ms. Martinez calls the Black child of white council member Mike Bonin a changuito, Spanish for monkey. She also likened the child to a luxury handbag and accused Mr. Bonin of using the toddler as a political ploy. In another section, she described Oaxacans in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood as “little short dark people.” 

In discussions about the redrawing of council districts, Ms. Martinez recalls telling a local business leader to convince Black council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson to “go after the airport” in Mr. Bonin’s district, which accounts for “billions of dollars’ worth of contracts.” They also discuss weakening the base for Nithya Raman, a South Asian immigrant. “You have to keep her on the fence. You have to make her work for it.” 

At another point, Ms. Martinez stated LA District Attorney George Gascon was “with the Blacks,” a phrase demonstrators repurposed for T-shirts and signage as they shut down council meetings with loud protests. Mr. Herrera, who hosted the confab at the Federation of Labor, states plainly, “My goal in life is to get the three of you elected. … I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.”

“A problem from the start” 

The City Council has final say over its own district lines – drawn by a commission appointed by council members and other elected officials. LA voters would have to approve a ballot measure to convert today’s setup to an independent redistricting commission. 

Although the 2021 Los Angeles City Redistricting Commission strove for independence by adopting integrity and transparency guidelines, holding public hearings with many community stakeholders, and making public its maps, “we did not have a truly independent commission,” says Fred Ali, who chaired the commission and is a longtime nonprofit leader in LA.

Being merely an “advisory” body to the council “was a problem from the start,” he says. Once the commission started producing maps that the council did not like, “then all the manipulation began.” The most clear and public example, he says, was the replacement of commissioners by council members who did not think that their commissioners were fairly representing their views. All the same issues that framed the recorded discussion – population trends, ethnic communities, economic assets – would still have to be handled by an independent commission, but the difference, says Mr. Ali, is that these sometimes tricky discussions would take place in public. 

“One of the ways that the city council can begin to earn trust back is by moving forward on a ballot initiative to create an independent commission,” says Mr. Ali, who notes that this is a trend across the country in states and municipalities.

Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register/AP

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson speaks to fellow members Gil Cedillo, left, and Kevin de León, right, as the chamber fills with chants for Mr. Cedillo and Mr. De León to resign during a Council meeting on Oct. 11, 2022. They both left the room before the meeting resumed.

Need for transparency

But independent commissions are no guarantee of a process free of interference, says Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the LA City Council as well as the LA County Board of Supervisors who has been involved in several redistricting rounds himself. 

He praises Mr. Ali’s appointed commission for its transparency, but criticizes the work of LA County’s independent commission for producing a final map at “the 11th hour and 59 minutes” in a closed session. Independent commissions are not accountable to voters, he points out.  

Still, he’s with Mr. Ali on the benefits of changing the city’s approach. “A truly independent commission of qualified people who have familiarity with the Voting Rights Act and other laws pertaining to drawing districts would be superior to elected officials drawing their own district lines,” he writes in a follow-up email. “It is imperative that they have an open and transparent process that solicits and considers stakeholder input and communities of interest. In short, voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

Los Angeles has undergone profound demographic changes over the past few decades, with Latinos growing to about half the population and the Black population declining to around 9% as people leave to find higher-paying jobs and cheaper housing. The fastest-growing group is now Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which account for 13% of the population. These changes produce “tensions” and “jealousies,” says Mr. Yaroslavsky, “but I refuse to believe that what those people said in that room reflected what real people think in this town,” adding that “thousands and thousands” of people have worked hard to address racial tensions and bring communities together. 

He consistently finds rankings of race relations as the highest area of satisfaction in LA County, which includes the city, in the annual “quality of life” surveys by the University of California, Los Angeles, which Mr. Yaroslavsky oversees. “This is not the city of 50 years ago,” he says. 

“This is the city where people of different colors and different ethnicities work together, go to school together, marry each other, go to the market together. Communities are more integrated now than before,” he says. The government, too, reflects a much greater diversity both on the City Council and in the mayorship, where polls indicate voters may well elect the city’s first woman, Karen Bass, who is Black, to the job.

Mr. Yaroslavsky points out that a political strategy that pits groups against each other is counterproductive. In a city this diverse and complex, “you want to find ways for everyone to win, and not make it a zero-sum game. What went on in that room was the philosophy of, ‘If I win, you have to lose,’ and that’s not true.” 

The tape and what it uncovered is a “terrible stain” on the city, Mr. Yaroslavsky says, “and there’s going to have to be healing process and a coming together and a cleansing of the house.”

“Take stock of their hearts” 

Resignations are a first and important step, he and others say. Beyond an independent redistricting commission, several council members are proposing a ballot measure to expand the number of City Council seats from its current 15 – which was set in 1925, when the population was about a quarter of its present size.  

The expanded size would increase representation, allowing for smaller districts and presumably closer relations between council members and their constituents in America’s second-largest city, says Marcia Godwin, professor of public administration at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California. But a larger body might be even harder to govern, she says. America’s largest city, New York, has 51 City Council seats and Chicago, the third-largest city, has 50.

But there’s a human component to the healing, she and others emphasize. “I’m really looking to see what kind of leadership we will have from the next mayor of Los Angeles and the next council president.” They can take the lead on diversity, equity, and inclusion – and push a new code of ethics.

Mr. Yaroslavsky says that everybody on the City Council needs to “take a deep breath, take stock of their hearts a little bit more. … And hopefully, the goodness in them will come out and operate on the assumption that people ought to have mutual trust, mutual understanding.” 

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