As scandal grips LA, Councilman O’Farrell drafted for tough role amid political whirlwind

Just two days after a leaked recording of Los Angeles City Council members and a labor official revealed scandal-spurring racial remarks, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell found himself drafted for a tough, unexpected new role.

He must take charge of the council following the resignation of President Nury Martinez as a wave of outraged officials and citizens demand her ouster, as well as two of her council peers. Many express emotions beyond that, urging that the scandal-scarred city rethink the way it does business and guarantee to its citizens that such controversies never happen again.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Martinez said she was taking a leave of absence amid the growing furor over her insensitive comments heard on a leaked audio recording during a meeting with council members Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo along with Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Herrera has already resigned his post.

A longtime representative of Council District 13, O’Farrell finds himself tackling a unenviable, unprecedented job as temporary president of the City Council, experts say.

O’Farrell is faced with navigating the already shifting City Council — during particularly complex post-pandemic days — as well as managing the fallout of the burgeoning scandal that spurred nearly every elected officials and community group to express anger and disappointment this week. On Tuesday, even President Joe Biden was mobed to urge  the scandal-wracked council membners to step down.

“Part of this is trying to ride the ship,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, who served on the L.A. City Ethics Commission from 2013 to 2018.

“The ship is facing an iceberg and its taking on water and those who remain, are going to have to explain that they can still keep us afloat and simultaneously tackle the incredibly pressing problems facing our city: homelessness, income inequality, and criminal justice issues.” Levinson said. “It’s not like we can take a collective moment and just talk about good government reforms. We need to do those two things simultaneously.”

The furor was sparked by a leaked recording with Martinez mocking the 2-year-old Black son of Councilman Mike Bonin, as well as making offensive comments about other officials, much of the conversation revolving around the controversial process of redistricting.

Martinez apologized Monday, adding she was ashamed of her racially offensive comments made in the 2021 conversation.

“I need to take a leave of absence and take some time to have an honest and heartfelt conversation with my family, my constituents, and community leaders,” she said in a statement. De Leon and Cedillo also issued apologies for their offensive language. None of the politicians resigned from their council seats.

The first step for council members is going to be “cleaning the house,” Levinson said.

“Step Two is explaining why guilt by association is not fair. For somebody like Mitch O’Farrell, he was not part of that phone call and why he can be trusted,” she added.

This new crisis is merely the latest scandal to smack a controversy-plagued City Hall.

It’s been just a year since Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from his council while he faces federal bribery charges for alleged actions that took place while he was a county supervisor.

Former Councilman José Huizar, who is accused of bribery and racketeering, is due to go on trial next year.

Councilman Mitch Englander pleaded guilty in an obstruction-of-justice case. He quit the council and was later imprisoned for obstructing an FBI investigation into his acceptance of  gifts from a favors-seeking businessman.

And then there’s the Department of Water and Power billing scandal.

Ethical allegations are also creating a major career controversy for Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had hoped to be named as ambassador to India months ago. But after a Senate report suggested that he may have ignored alleged longtime sexual harassment by one of his top aides, the trail to Washington D.C. got cold. The mayor has said he was unaware of any sexual harassment involving his aide Rick Jacobs.

Los Angeles City Council President Pro Tem, Mitch O’Farrall, talks with council members Gil Cedillo, and Kevin De Leon during Tuesday’s council meeting on October 11, 2022 at Los Angeles City Hall, Council Chambers. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“Obviously, they are all separate but it’s just common sense to think that there’s a huge crisis of trust with respect to public officials and we saw chaos in City Council chambers and that’s how people feel,” Levinson said. “People feel this is a dumpster fire.”

Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and Chicana/o Latina/o students and founding director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said O’Farrell’s most difficult challenge may well be just assuring that the City Council can function in the following months.

“There’s going to be a lack of trust so he needs to deal with the lack of trust between the communities and council members and everybody else,” he said.

If all three council members who participated in the leaked conversation resign, they might potentially be replaced by very progressive council members, Guerra added.

“It could be that eight of the 15 council members could be new,” Guerra said. “All of the previous coalitions and alliances within the council have to be re-established, and especially the larger coalition that elected the president.”

When it comes to voter turnout for the upcoming November election, Guerra said the latest tumult could potentially boost or decrease voter turnout.

“The scandal has the potential to greatly mobilize people and also has the potential to alienate others who just say: ‘look, they all are the same. They are terrible. Why vote? We elected who we thought were great people are scandalous as well,’” Guerra added.

It doesn’t help that O’Farrell himself faces a competitive race to keep his own seat on City Council.

On Tuesday, O’Farrell struggled to start a meeting as a rowdy crowd of protesters packed the City Council chamber, calling for the resignation of three members, shouting “get out!” and “resign now” at de Leon and Cedillo, who were driven from the chambers by the uprooar.

During the meeting, Bonin said he was deeply hurt by the comments his colleagues made, calling them to resign.

“I’m sickened by it,” he said.

Now at @LACityCouncil @mikebonin pic.twitter.com/KUb33yyOFx

— dean musgrove (@deanmusgrove) October 11, 2022

Joel Fox, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and a political analyst, said O’Farrell must stage a comeback to win back his own seat. In the primary against challenger Hugo Soto-Martinez, a labor and community organizer, O’Farrell finished second.

“It’s been a great move by progressives to elect more progressive candidates,” Fox said. “So he has to deal with that.”

This eruption of this scandal could further fuel candidates who want to propel LA’s leadership farther to the left, Fox said.

“He will be seen as a part of the establishment,” Fox said. “He will have to work very hard to overcome that. He will have to deal with the overall movement to the left by many who want to change the way the Los Angeles government operates.”