Inside the Race for Herb Wesson’s Open City Council Seat

Voters in Council District 10—which includes Koreatown, Wilshire Center, and Arlington Heights—have to pick a new council rep in March
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It’s hard to believe, but in fewer than two months Californians will head to the polls. While some Angelenos may feel that their vote won’t matter when it comes to picking a party’s presidential nominee, their influence can be greater in local races on the ballot—that includes the seven City Council contests.

Council elections occur every four years, and a council member can serve up to three full terms, meaning the man or woman in the seat has tremendous long-term influence over the area. It’s a job that affords great power, but also one where pothole politics and constituent services matter.

We’ve been looking at some of the most important local races (see here and here). This week, it’s District 10.


About the District

Geographically one of the smallest council districts at just 14.5 square miles, the 10th is bisected by the 10 Freeway and, if you squint, is shaped like a little dog with an upraised tail. It is dynamically diverse, and the website of current occupant Herb Wesson lists more than four dozen distinct neighborhoods, among them Leimert Park, Arlington heights, Koreatown, Mid-City, Little Bangladesh, Little Ethiopia and Wilshire Center. According to a 2018 demographics and economic survey conducted by the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Beacon Economics, the district in 2015 had approximately 239,000 residents, and a median household income of $43,100, below the citywide average of $52,000. The study also found that 32 percent of area households have an annual income below $25,000 (it’s 25 percent citywide). This is one of only two council races where there is no incumbent, as Wesson is termed out this year.

Representation

There is a lot of history in the seat, which has traditionally held by an African American. Tom Bradley served as councilman from 1963-1972, before becoming mayor. He was followed by David S. Cunningham, who held the post for 13 years, and Nate Holden, who represented the area from 1987-2003. Wesson has been there since 2005 (for eight years he also served as City Council president). The one temporal blip was from 2003-2005, when Martin Ludlow was in office. He resigned to run the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, but stepped down from that job when he was prosecuted for campaign finance violations related to his victorious council race.

In the Running

The overwhelming favorite in the race is Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has served on the County Board of Supervisors since 2008. One of the most powerful, adept and accomplished politicians in the region, Ridley-Thomas also spent time in the state Legislature, and served on the L.A. City Council in the 1990s. He has strong support from both labor and the business community, and boasts a seasoned campaign team. Ridley-Thomas also has a long record of addressing homelessness, and co-chairs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on confronting the crisis in the state. Many observers expect that, if Ridley-Thomas wins, he will run for mayor in 2022 when Eric Garcetti is termed out.

Ridley-Thomas’s challengers include Grace Yoo, an attorney with deep community ties. She boasts the endorsement of Congressman Mark Takano and her website asserts that she aims to “end corruption and enact fiscally responsible policies” that benefit Angelenos.” She ran against Wesson in 2015 but garnered less than 30% of the vote.

Another candidate is Aura Vasquez, who was born in Colombia and moved with her family to the United States in 1996, and who joined the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council in 2012. Her campaign material touts her environmental advocacy and her visits to Standing Rock to protest an oil pipeline. She had a stint on the LADWP Board of Commissioners.

Also on the ballot are Channing Martinez, a self-described “Black Queer, Garifuna civil rights and climate justice organizer” whose platform includes cutting the LAPD budget by 50 percent and providing free public transportation, and human rights activist Melvin Snell.

Money Matters

Ridley-Thomas has built relationships over the course of decades, and those are paying off with a surfeit of donations—he raised more than $424,000 in the first six months of 2019, and by the end of the year, according to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, he had pulled in $569,000. Those who have donated the maximum $800 include former City Controller Wendy Greuel, LACMA leader Michael Govan, a battery of physicians (Ridley-Thomas spearheaded the reopening of the MLK Community Hospital in South L.A.), and a clutch of union political action committees.

Yoo has demonstrated some financial heft with $217,000 raised, though the $66,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019 is dwarfed by the $320,000 that Ridley-Thomas still has to spend. Vasquez has raised $85,000, with $45,000 in cash on hand. Martinez has raised $12,000, and Snell has not reported raising any money.

Big Issues in Council District 10

Residents of the 10th have concerns similar to those in most other council districts, starting with housing and homelessness. The district saw a 21 percent rise in a year in homelessness, to nearly 1,600 unhoused individuals, according to the Homeless Count released last June. Wesson saw a fight over the location of a temporary emergency shelter erupt during his watch, with Koreatown residents angry about its placement. A pair of shelters are now under construction in the district.

Traffic is also a persistent concern in District 10; in Koreatown in particular, finding a parking spot can be a bloodsport (remember this standoff?). The district has limited parks and green space given its dense residential base.

What Happens Next?

With less than 60 days until voters hit the polls, the campaign is ready to kick into high gear, and the aspiring council members will have to work hard to cut through the clutter. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a November runoff.


RELATED: The Battle to Fill the City Council Seat Being Vacated by José Huizar



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