Next month, Herb Wesson will give up his City Council presidency and hand the ceremonial cudgel to Nury Martinez.
I mean gavel.
Actually, I’m not sure. L.A. has never had a council president quite like Wesson, and as he relinquishes his post after eight years—so he can focus on running for an L.A. County Supervisor seat in March—he leaves behind a complicated, checkered legacy, one where achievements were interspersed with power plays and politically menacing moves.
Wesson is a high achiever prone to utilizing bully-ball tactics. He’s a pusher of progressive policy and a punishment-minded pugilist. He’s made many headlines and inadvertently been the subject of many others.
He has earned applause and guffaws.
How will history judge the Cleveland native who once tried to make it as a stand-up comic? That depends on who tells his story.
Wesson, who joined the council in 2005 after six years in the state assembly—including serving as speaker from 2002 to 2004—is his own best spokesman. Just glimpse his November 27 motion that purportedly served to nominate Martinez as his replacement. Her name appears in the last sentence of what is essentially a four-page brag sheet.
Wesson sells himself well and employs a missionary zeal. The second sentence of his motion reads, “During my time as Council president, it has been important to me to support my colleagues in creating and carrying out a progressive policy agenda that moves our city towards a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
The motion touts accomplishments made on his watch, referencing, among other things, boosting the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour, creating a council Homelessness and Poverty Committee, and adopting a single-use plastic bag policy as well as a straws-on-request ordinance. He trumpets the creation of MyVoiceLA, which allows city workers to anonymously report instances of harassment, and establishing a social equity program for people seeking to open cannabis-related businesses.
The list goes on, with references to efforts to decriminalize street vending and moves to protect immigrants. Toward the end, it says, “We recently adopted the first Civil and Human Rights ordinance in the City of Los Angeles’ history.”
Even if the motion contains some squishy claims, such as back-patting for supposed campaign finance reform, it achieves its aim. Peruse the pages and Wesson appears a patron of progress.
And yet, there is more to the story.
From the good times to the hard times, I will look back on these last 8 years as Council President with pride as we made this Council the most progressive it has ever been. Thank you all for letting me quarterback this team, it has been the honor of a lifetime. pic.twitter.com/rDBvn1w9aS
— Council President Herb J. Wesson, Jr. (@LACouncilPres) December 12, 2019
Any council president possesses immense power, setting the body’s agenda and serving as acting mayor when the real mayor is out of town. Crucially, the council boss appoints the 14 other members to committees, and works behind the scenes to placate egos and build consensus.
Wesson had a unique supporting cast. Five other council members had also clocked time in the state legislature, leading some observers to label the L.A. City Council “Sacramento South.” During Wesson’s tenure the traditionally lengthy council meetings grew tighter and shorter, but City Hall watchers also complained that real debate once seen on the council floor all but disappeared, and that independent thought was squelched as the politicians—who each oversee an area of about 250,000 residents—marched in lockstep. Public division was rare. Unanimous votes were the norm.
Wesson early on revealed a penchant for bare-knuckle tactics, including in dealings with fellow council reps. Neither Jan Perry nor Bernard Parks showed up for the vote when he was selected as council president, and he responded by yanking key committee posts from them. The following year he inflicted more pain—Wesson rode herd on the once-a-decade city redistricting process, in which council district boundaries are redrawn. He was in charge as Perry’s and Parks’s territories were filleted, despite their protests. (Perry is now running against Wesson for the supervisor’s seat.)
Then there was an instantly infamous November 2012 council meeting. It was a time of concern over pension costs and the city’s finances. Former mayor Richard Riordan made a rare appearance to testify before the council.
Riordan discussed his ideas for pension reform, but rather than a pleasant “Thank you” after he finished, Wesson shucked political courtesies and retorted, “Ya know what, Mr. Mayor, why didn’t you fix it when you were mayor, OK?”
When Riordan tried to answer, Wesson cut him off, declaring, “No, there’s no back and forth. I get the last word.” A moment later, he added, “This is our house.”
The future would reveal that those moments were not aberrations, but rather Wesson’s M.O. In March 2013, shortly before the mayoral runoff between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, he appeared at a luncheon held by business and lobbying group Central City Association of Los Angeles, and let the room of developers, attorneys, and other power players know that they needed to work with him.
“I’m telling you and you can rest assured that when you go talk to the mayor, whoever that is, you better come talk to me, because I’m going to be an equal partner, the council will be,” he told the crowd. “We’re not going to be a junior partner.”
Indeed, Wesson would do things his way. In October 2013, when Councilman José Huizar was running for re-election while also dealing with the fallout of an intra-office extramarital affair, Wesson took the stage at a downtown campaign event and proclaimed, “Mr. Huizar is like my brother, my best friend on the council. I trust him with my life. He does the same for me.”
That trust apparently dissipated about a year ago. Shortly after the FBI raided Huizar’s home and offices, Wesson stripped Huizar of his council committee posts (no one has been arrested or charged with a crime).
Though Wesson’s re-election bids were easy victories, he has faced hurdles. In 2015, in its series of political report cards, the L.A. Times gave Wesson just a C+. Later, the council president pushed hard for the creation of a public bank in the city, only for voters to sharply reject it in November 2018.
Like every other Los Angeles politician, Wesson has seen homelessness soar under his watch. While he can point to some progress, including housing thousands of people, it hasn’t stanched the flood—the city now counts more than 36,000 homeless residents. If the council president wants equal credit for Los Angeles’ advances, he also gets equal blame for its shortfalls.
Then there are the personal financial issues that became public during Wesson’s tenure. Media reports in 2016 detailed a series of default notices served on properties he owned. Two years later stories surfaced about Discover Bank getting a $4,500 judgment against Wesson for unpaid credit card bills.
Wesson’s office has also been touched by the investigation that engulfed Huizar. A federal search warrant named a collection of development and political figures, including Deron Williams, the council president’s chief of staff (again, no charges have been filed).
As Wesson prepares to leave one office and guns for another, he has raised gobs of cash and secured a retinue of valuable endorsements. Observers consider him the frontrunner in the race.
Yet the campaign has had an unexpected moment. Wesson recently released a video that shows him searching Skid Row for a son who is homeless and has struggled with addiction issues. The response has been bifurcated—there is sympathy for Wesson and his family, as well as questions as to why that video came now, with some asking whether a tragic personal stories is being mined for a political upside.
For better or worse, there has never been a council president quite like Wesson.