Will LA City Council’s fiasco lead to redistricting reform?

By Clara Harter and Linh Tat

It’s a hard word to say and most people don’t know what it means, but redistricting is the talk of Los Angeles City Hall in the wake of the scandal that forced City Council President Nury Martinez to quit on Wednesday, Oct. 12 and prevented the council from holding meetings this week as angry crowds at City Hall shouted down elected leaders.

A leaked tape of a backroom conversation in October of 2021, recently leaked to Reddit, captured Martinez using racist slurs to criticize City Councilman Mike Bonin’s toddler, who is Black, in a backroom meeting she held with Councilmember Kevin de Leon and Councilmember Gil Cedillo — and powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. Martinez and Herrara have both resigned, and the pressure is intense on De Leon and Cedillo to do the same.

While most local and national headlines this week focused on Martinez’s ugly attack on Bonin’s little boy, and her racially-tinged criticism of Black councilmembers, the closed-door discussion among the four Latino leaders actually centered on the redrawing of city council district boundaries.

Their backroom conversation a year ago has resulted in accusations that the four powerful Latinos were trying to dilute the power of Black voters in Los Angeles by altering the boundaries — and thus the racial population mix — in Los Angeles City Council voting districts.

Labor leaders have condemned Herrera’s contributions to the anti-Black comments made at the meeting, but they are also questioning what appeared to be a backroom deal to redraw voting districts in favor of Latinos at a cost to Black residents. At one point in the secret tape, Herrera tells the three council members, “My goal is to get the three of you elected, and I’m just focused on that. We’re like a little Latino caucus of our own.”

The explosive recording has refocused attention on redistricting in California. In the recording, the officials expressed concern about Los Angeles City Council districts being redrawn last year to benefit Black residents while disenfranchising Latinos. The remarks, peppered with racist commentary, reveal “a sort of concerted effort to dilute the strength of Black voters,” said L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who is Black.

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson speaks to Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León as the chambers fills with chants for Cedillo and De León to resign during Tuesday’s council meeting on October 11, 2022. They both left the chambers before the meeting resumed. A recording was released of Nury Martinez, who has since stepped down as council president and took a leave of absence, making racists comments with Cedillo and De León. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

One union leader on Monday criticized the Latino foursome for trying to prevent a Black replacement to fill the District 10 seat left empty by Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is facing corruption charges and faces trial on Nov. 15. In the end, Heather Hutt was appointed to the seat, a former state director for then-Sen. Kamala Harris and a district director for former state Sen. Isadore Hall.

“The (apology) neglects to address President Herrera’s own vocal contribution to the anti-Black maneuvers to designate a suitable replacement (Council District 10) representative following the removal of Mark Ridley-Thomas,” Cliff Smith, business manager for local union 36 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, said at a Monday press conference.

“The statement put out in President Herrera’s name does not take responsibility for his own comments,” Smith added. “These are not the ideas of labor, not the words of its leadership.”

Many Californians were outraged, including U.S. Sen Alex Padilla, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, state lawmakers representing Los Angeles, Legislative Diversity Caucus leaders and prominent organized labor groups.

After adjourning the Wednesday, Oct. 12  City Council meeting without holding a meeting, acting City Council President Mitch O’Farrell told reporters he supports the state attorney general’s probe into the city’s redistricting process, announced that morning.

O’Farrell introduced a motion on Tuesday directing city staff to report to the council steps needed to place a measure on the ballot in 2024 asking voters to increase the number of city council seats. He also called for a report outlining an immediate redistricting process if the 2024 ballot measure passed.

The City Council has operated with 15 members since 1925 when the city’s population was just under 1 million people, O’Farrell said. Today, L.A. has 4 million residents but the number of council seats has not grown. The districts now equal the population size of medium-sized cities.

On Wednesday, City Attorney Mike Feuer urged the City Council to call a special election next spring that would ask voters to amend the city’s charter so that an independent redistricting commission can redraw the current council district map.

Feuer had proposed during his unsuccessful mayoral run this year that the city’s redistricting map be drawn by an independent body whose members aren’t appointed by city officials.

“It should be clear to everyone by now that if you leave in the hands of elected officials the power to determine their own political districts, this is a recipe for conflict of interest and is an invitation to backroom deals,” Feuer said during a news conference, where he renewed his calls for an independent commission.

“We need to act with urgency right now. We have an emergency in our city. We need to begin to heal. We need to restore faith in the redistricting process, in city government, in city leadership,” he said.

He proposed that the city contract with Los Angeles County, to use its independent redistricting commission process to draw new district boundaries ahead of city council races in 2024. City officials would not get to appoint members to the commission, as they do now, nor would they have the ability to veto any of the commission’s decisions, Feuer said.

Feuer also called on the council to place reforms on the 2024 ballot, including adoption of the city’s own independent redistricting commission process going forward.

Asked about Feuer’s proposal, acting Council President O’Farrell said a special spring election to amend the city’s charter was “not out of the realm of possibility.”

This conversation at City Hall has come and gone a number of times over the years. Critics have long claimed that the 15 councilmembers, and their predecessors, do not want to dilute their individual power by representing fewer residents and fewer job centers.

At the state level, an independent commission is charged with the politically perilous task of redrawing the boundaries of legislative, congressional and board of equalization districts every ten years after the U.S. Census to reflect population shifts and protect “communities of interest” — a term that encompasses both racial and ethnic groups and those formed around shared environmental, economic concerns or social concerns.

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The landscape is different at the local level, where lines are drawn for county supervisor, city council and school board districts, among others.

About 17.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million residents live in a city or county with an independent redistricting commission, according to one estimate. In other areas, local politicians lead the process — and tend to draw lines benefiting themselves and their party.

To address those concerns, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed bills to create independent redistricting commissions in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties. However, CalMatters columnist Dan Walters argued Monday that they simply “create gerrymanders of a different kind.”

For California Common Cause, an advocacy group that pushed for the state’s independent redistricting commission, the leaked tapes demonstrate the need for a similar approach at all levels of government — and serve as a call to action for state lawmakers.

Jonathan Mehta Stein, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement: “The manipulation of district lines to serve those in power, at the expense of regular people and communities of color, is not unique to Los Angeles. It occurred across many California cities, counties, and school boards during the most recent redistricting cycle. And it will continue if the state legislature does not take action to put an end to these sorts of democratic abuses through widespread reform of our local redistricting systems.”

Related links

Two LA City Councilmembers who are refusing to step down could take a financial hit if they quit
Mitch O’Farrell cancels Friday LA City Council meeting and urges Cedillo and De Leon to step down
Amid scandal, Nury Martinez resigns as LA City Council president but stays on council
Nury Martinez’s racist slams add a new scandal to corruption-riddled LA City Hall
Tearing the fabric of municipal trust: A guide to corruption cases in Los Angeles City Hall

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