An Inside Look at L.A.’s Big City Council Change-Up

A full 20 percent of the panel is turning over in a short time period, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, Kevin de León. and Nithya Raman bring high expectations to the job
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In the wake of the November elections, City Hall watchers have been keenly tracking Mayor Eric Garcetti, with both supporters and opponents wondering if President-elect Joe Biden will award him a job in Washington, D.C. That focus has largely masked another important shift in the building.

This week, two new council members will be sworn in, and on Tuesday they will attend their first meeting. The arrival of Nithya Raman and the return of Mark Ridley-Thomas—who served on the council in the ’90s, before his time in state and county government—combined with the October 15 inauguration of Kevin de León (who took the District 14 seat two months early following the political demise of Jose Huizar), marks the most impactful shake-up of the 15-member panel in more than a decade.

Not only has 20 percent of the council been swapped, but the three arrivals all carry far more heft, name ID, and higher expectations than the average political newbie. Ridley-Thomas and de León are wily, power-brokering veterans, and neither will need the proverbial ramp-up period to figure out how City Hall works and which department general managers carry the real weight. And though Raman is a political rookie, her toppling of District 4 incumbent David Ryu came after she revved up a growing progressive base and earned more than 70,000 votes. She’s already trying to build on that momentum, and last week announced the formation of a CD4 Volunteer Corps.

Almost as important as who is arriving is who is departing, and in each case the before-and-after difference is stark. District 14 had essentially lacked representation for almost two years, ever since the FBI raided Huizar’s City Hall office in November 2018. Now the district, which includes the economic engine of DTLA, has gone from the flimsiest of occupants to de León, whose vision and dealmaking prowess were honed when he served as President pro Tempore of the State Senate.

 

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In District 4, Ryu admirably pushed for campaign finance reform and other change, but had trouble crafting the coalitions needed to be a force in the building. Raman already seems to have a left-leaning ally in District 11 rep Mike Bonin. Additionally, where others might see thumping a sitting council member as a mandate to blow stuff up, Raman seems to grasp that success requires navigating the existing system. “People call on the council for so much,” she told Los Angeles last month. “I want to be able to be responsive to those things as well and build the kind of team that is able to deliver effective constituent services as well as effective policy making. That’s what I’m trying to learn from people who are far better versed in how the city works.”

Then there is District 10, where Ridley-Thomas replaces Herb Wesson, who spent 15 years in office, including eight as council president. Wesson was a ruthless and sometimes cringe-worthy executor of power dynamics—his shutting off the microphone of former Mayor Richard Riordan, who in 2012 visited council chambers to talk about the city’s economy, was a governmental low point. Indeed, despite extensive labor and business support, Wesson crashed and burned last month in his run for Ridley-Thomas’s County Supervisor seat, falling to Holly Mitchell.

Ridley-Thomas is also a serious power player but employs different tactics than Wesson, opting for strategy and reserving the cudgel for when it’s necessary. His experience and political savvy are nearly unmatched in L.A.

The three join a council that has already seen some change, ever since January, when Nury Martinez succeeded Wesson as council president. Whereas during Wesson’s tenure the panel was known for unanimous votes with relatively little public debate—the body was sometimes tagged “Sacramento South,” a reference to the style Wesson employed when he was Speaker of the state Assembly—now not everyone marches in lockstep all the time. Martinez operates with a family-first agenda, and doesn’t seem to crave the control of 15-0 votes. Indeed, recent discussions over the city’s budget and reallocating $150 million in LAPD money have sparked the kind of open arguing and contested voting that many thought had gone the way of the dodo.

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The biggest issues the reshaped council faces are how to keep the city fiscally sound and protect businesses and people who’ve been hammered by COVID-19, and the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. The most recent Homeless Count found more than 41,000 people in the city were experiencing homelessness, and that was before the coronavirus slammed into L.A.

Addressing homelessness is like fighting an eight-headed greased hydra, with challenges springing from every direction, among them the cost of creating housing, responding to residents furious over sprawling tent encampments, and wrestling with lawsuits that complicate what government can do.

While the new arrivals alone won’t rectify the situation, they pack experience and relationships that could prove helpful. Raman made homelessness a focus of her campaign, and she formerly headed SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, a group that worked to aid those without shelter. Meanwhile, de León sought to kick-start a variety of projects in his district, and maintains ties to state leaders who may be able to open some financial spigots.

 

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Ridley-Thomas could play an outsized role. He co-chaired Gov. Gavin Newsom’s homelessness task force, which provides a level of trust and a direct conduit to state resources, and during his 12 years on the County Board of Supervisors he pushed a bevy of projects to provide services to those on the streets. Addressing homelessness requires a deep, trusting partnership between city and county government; Ridley-Thomas can improve that relationship on day one.

This is not to say that anything will change quickly, and the three new arrivals will join Martinez and the other 11 council members, along with Garcetti and additional city leaders, in trying to protect renters whose incomes were decimated by the virus, and also prevent an eviction tsunami. All will be praying that more dollars flow in a Biden administration.

The biggest challenge may also be the oldest: balancing big-picture policy with nuts-and-bolts constituent services.

There’s an assortment of other questions regarding the newcomers, including whether Raman’s victory will push a panel that already ranks as one of the nation’s more progressive group of politicians even further to the left. Los Angeles’ mindset has never been more open to confronting racial justice, income inequality, climate change, and reimagining policing, subjects that resonate with all three arrivals.

The biggest challenge may also be the oldest: balancing big-picture policy with nuts-and-bolts constituent services. Angelenos want their elected representatives to effect change, but they also want their potholes filled and their trees trimmed. Satisfying community groups and squeaky-wheel neighborhood councils cannot be underestimated.

There’s another facet worth watching: Ridley-Thomas and de León are both seen as potential candidates to run for mayor, whether that’s in a regularly scheduled 2022 election when Garcetti is termed out, or before that in a special election, if the mayor leaves early. Both can raise a lot of money, and each has a sizable base upon which to build a voter bloc. Ask eight people which of the two is more likely to be the next mayor and you’ll likely get a four-four split, and then a six-minute discussion over whether businessman Rick Caruso will be on the ballot.

Whatever happens, the council has new blood. How it pumps will be fascinating.


RELATED: Incoming Council Member Nithya Raman Talks About Her Historic Victory and What Comes Next


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