2022 in Review: Political Nightmares Across Los Angeles

Cityside Column: The racist audio scandal was the tip of an ugly iceberg in what was a nasty year at City Hall

In any normal year, the election of Los Angeles’ first woman mayor would have been the calendar’s defining news story. Of course, nothing in the political sphere this year has been normal.

Karen Bass indeed succeeded Eric Garcetti after her November win, but only after surviving a campaign with record-shattering spending. And her victory was overshadowed by one of the most galling scandals Los Angeles City Hall ever weathered.

But aside from this shameful incident, there was even more political turmoil, as we saw many legal tangles and the ongoing pyrotechnics of a flailing county sheriff. Here is a look back at some of the stories that made 2022 such a wild political year.

She Said What?!

Los Angeles gasped on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9, when the first stories and leaked audio appeared online, revealing the racist and hateful language uttered during a meeting of Council President Nury Martinez, members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and labor leader Ron Herrera. Fury swelled as the world heard Martinez spew bile and offend almost every group imaginable. She dismissed District Attorney George Gascón, infamously sneering, “Fuck that guy. I’m telling you now, he’s with the Backs.” She used a Spanish term for “monkey” to describe her colleague Mike Bonin’s Black son. When calling out the child for his child-like act of playing while on a float at a parade, she horrifyingly said, “This kid needs a beatdown.”

The meeting, organized to discuss strategy during the redistricting process, was held in October 2021. It was secretly recorded, and we still don’t know who made the tape, who released it, and where their intentions lay. If that information comes out, there may be a new, very ugly chapter in this saga.

Still, for all the pain and division, there was a silver lining: L.A. came together. There was unified support for Bonin’s family and the councilman delivered a heartbreaking speech. There was unanimous, focused outrage. Martinez and Herrera were forced to resign within days. Cedillo went underground. And that brings us to…

The KDL Standoff

Much of Los Angeles continues to call for de León to resign as of today. But the former president of the state Senate has refused to head for the door and the final three months of 2022 brought one chapter after another of his story in this saga: de León kept a low profile; then he went on an ill-received media apology tour; then he saw Council chambers erupt in anger when he showed up, and in the final session of the year, some of his colleagues walked out; then, that night, aggressive disruptors got in his face at a community toy giveaway and instigated a physical confrontation.

As 2022 comes to a close, one thing is clear: de León is not walking away, and for every activist who screams he should go, the councilman has a constituent who testifies on how he should stay. Opponents have now begun gathering signatures to try to force a recall election.

A Kinder, Gentler Council

Martinez’s ejection led to that most curious of political nerd spectacles—a battle to succeed her as council president. Multiple figures angled for the position. Ultimately, veteran Valley rep Paul Krekorian managed to secure the votes, outmaneuvering Curren Price. Yet already, District 8 rep Marqueece Harris-Dawson appears to be waiting in the wings, preparing for a run for the post when Krekorian is termed out in two years.

Krekorian is seen as one of the adults in the room at City Hall and he grasps the demand for change. He quickly formed a new committee on governance, which met for the first time in December; the expectation is the panel will develop proposals to expand the size of the Council and adopt an independent redistricting process.

Mayor in Limbo

On July 9, there was a birthday that brought no presents and no cake: Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be ambassador to India turned 1 year old. The now former L.A. mayor, the people of India, and the entire diplomatic core continue to wait to find out what will happen with this nomination. 

It’s a frustrating and in some ways head-scratching turn of events. The nod back in the summer of 2021 seemed to be the mayor’s reward for helping get Joe Biden elected as president. But we all know what has happened since then: Former Garcetti communications deputy Naomi Seligman asserts that the mayor was aware of alleged unsavory behavior perpetrated by his former aide, Rick Jacobs. Strong denials have been issued all around. Still, the vote has stalled in the U.S. Senate and Garcetti waits in limbo. 

Huizar Trial Appetizers

Who says political drama is reserved for City Hall? In 2022, there were a couple of highlights nearby—in a federal courtroom. And they bode ill for former Councilman José Huizar, who has been charged with running a sprawling organized crime racket targeting Downtown developers.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice secured a conviction against David Lee, with a jury finding that he paid Huizar a $500,000 bribe to help navigate a DTLA project through the city permitting process. Then, in November, Chinese development company Shen Zhen New World, LLC, which had sought to build a 77-story skyscraper, was found guilty of paying over $1 million in bribes to Huizar. The jury in the case deliberated for less than three hours. Now, Shen Zhen owner Wei Huang remains a fugitive.

These were major victories for the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys and indicate that their legal tactics resonate with juries. Huizar, who has maintained his innocence, faces trial next year.

Wins for Mark Ridley-Thomas

Huizar is not the only former Council rep awaiting a federal trial in 2023. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who stands accused of using his former position as a county supervisor to help his son gain a scholarship and teaching job at the University of Southern California, is facing his day in court. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ridley-Thomas was suspended by the City Council after charges came down in October 2021. But the politician, who built up a network of ardent supporters over three decades in office, scored a pair of big victories in 2022. In the winter, two judges shot down attempts by Nury Martinez to install former Councilman Herb Wesson in Ridley-Thomas’ seat; a lawsuit by a group of South L.A. clergy members said Wesson had exceeded the maximum time allowed in Council. Later, after more bumps, Martinez shoehorned her backup pick, Heather Hutt, into the interim post.

And a resounding victory occurred this month. After Ridley-Thomas was suspended, Controller Ron Galperin withheld the councilman’s salary. He sued, saying the controller lacked the authority for such a move. On Dec. 7, the city settled the case and the councilman got his back pay. 

Villanueva Exits With a Bang

For journalists, Sheriff Alex Villanueva was the gift that kept on giving. He had a penchant for picking pointless fights and turning the smallest molehills into not just mountains but flaming volcanoes.

Yet Villanueva outdid even himself on Sept. 14. On that morning, struggling in a re-election bid, his deputies served search warrants on the home of 81-year-old County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a political enemy, and Patti Giggans, a member of the civilian panel that oversees the department.

Ostensibly, the raid was related to an investigation of a county contract awarded to a nonprofit run by Giggans. However, the entire world saw it as a transparent effort by the embattled Villanueva to boost his campaign and toss rocks at a foe. It hardly had the desired impact and California Attorney General Rob Bonta soon seized control of the investigation.

Then, on Nov. 8, the public weighed in: Villanueva was dismantled in a race against former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. The incumbent got less than 40% of the vote. But his reign will never be forgotten.

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