Herb Wesson’s title is president of the Los Angeles City Council, a job where he’s supposed to line up votes to pass measures and budgets. But he prefers to think of himself as a sort of shadow mayor—the person who stands just outside the limelight but actually is the one making sure the trash gets picked up and the streetlights don’t go out.
An old-school pol with a pack-a-day habit, the 66-year-old proudly proclaims himself a master of the art of negotiation, especially when it requires massaging the egos of his colleagues or even Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was city council president before Wesson. “Talk to Herb” is the most important phrase to know if you want to get something done at City Hall, he says, presiding over a breakfast of fruit, turkey sausage, and English muffin at a diner in his district.
Wesson came to L.A. from Cleveland in the 1970s to start a new life. A brief stint as a stand-up comic didn’t pan out. Through a combination of determination and luck, he pushed his way into politics, working for Nate Holden, a city councilman at the time, before winning a seat in the state assembly in 1998. “I took to it like a duck to water,” Wesson says. So much so that four years later he was named speaker. He came back to L.A. in 2005 to represent a council district that stretches from Koreatown and Mid-City south to Baldwin Hills.
Married 36 years and the father of four, Wesson is every bit the political operator, but he may also be the most brutally honest elected official in the city. He can even admit when he’s made a mistake—and he’s made a few, he says. With his term coming to an end, he’s now eyeing his next move, which could possibly mean going from shadow mayor to actual mayor.
You were a kid when you arrived in L.A. How did you wind up in politics?
I was 22, trying to get a gig in politics. No matter where I went, the door was closed. One night, up late, watching TV, there was a special on the Republican Party, and they were saying, “We want to open our doors to all minorities.” I went to their headquarters on Wilshire. I walked in. It was all white; no one would talk to me. It was like Leave It to Beaver. So I came up with a strategy that I would get on a campaign and prove myself.
How did you get your foot in the door?
A friend of mine, Rathell—everyone called him Rat—his wife told him about a campaign for Congress. I’m new to the city. He says, “You take the 110 north, get off at Slauson, go west, make a right, and you’ll see this big campaign office.” I drove past the exit, got off at King. All of a sudden there’s this huge sign that says “Elect [state] Senator Nate Holden for Congress.” I went in, volunteered, and within two weeks I was the office manager. I’m talking to Rathell. “I can’t thank you enough. I’m the office manager for Nate Holden.” “Oh shit,’ ” he says, “you were supposed to go to [state Assemblyman] Julian Dixon’s campaign.” They were running against each other, and Julian won. Had I driven four blocks further….
But you stuck with Nate Holden nonetheless.
It took me ten years to get a [paying] job in politics. I started in 1977. I got one in 1987, with Holden. He was running for city council. He made me the chief of staff. I didn’t even know how to get to City Hall at the time.
You ran for the first time yourself in 1998, a successful bid for the state assembly. How did you like Sacramento?
It was like being a mature college student. The capitol was like a college campus: You had this building—that was like the university—and then you went home on the weekend.
Four years later, you were speaker of the assembly. The speaker’s office is where the sausage gets made. What was most eye-opening about it?
That’s where I understood how important relationships are, getting to know people, how to negotiate—and how important, for some, optics could be.
How do you mean?
There was one guy—in order to vote for the budget, he wanted us to eliminate what he called “ghost positions,” just for the optics. So I said, “Shit, yeah, we’ll do that.” It didn’t mean anything, but we did it to get his vote.
Both of these roles—speaker of the assembly and president of the city council—are highly transactional. The knock on you is that you are a dealmaker and you don’t articulate lofty policy goals. Are we gettingthis wrong?
When I was in Sacramento, I was put in a box, unfairly. What we’ve done is the perfect blend of actually getting things done and huge policy issues. If you look at some of the issues, like homelessness, the city council has taken the lead. Just about everything that goes on in this city, the council has been a part of, which means I’ve been a part of that. But I’m not one of these guys who goes around saying, “I did this, I did that.” That’s not my style. It’s easier to get things done when people don’t have to worry about you taking all the headlines. If I have to share credit with the world, I will share credit with the world. But if I live to be 347 years old, I don’t know if I will ever be able to get out of this box.
“Could I be a county supervisor? Yeah, I could do that. Could I do something statewide? Yeah, I could do that. Citywide? Yeah.”
How do you define the “box”?
Do I make deals? Yes. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. “What do you want? What do you want? Well, why don’t we do this?” People believe that if you want to make something happen in L.A., you need to go talk to Herb. I’m so fricking proud of that, that people believe from the smallest thing to the largest thing, if you really want something to happen, go talk with Herb.
Is dealmaking the best way to run this city? It seems like we have too many deals. Every time there’s a large building project, it’s out of code because the codes are so antiquated. So it requires a vote from the council. Developers are the biggest funders of politicians. We just had a developer get indicted for illegal campaign contributions. You don’t see a problem here?
I’m going to use my Rabbi Rubin thing. A friend of mine—good rabbi, good man—came to the council, and he talked about how bad people are born into every generation. Some look for shortcuts or maybe bend or break laws. But the vast majority of the people don’t do that. It takes good people born into every generation to counter the bad. And I’d like to consider myself as being one of the good people. As long as the rules are fair, I’m comfortable with that.
The rules are fair and adequate?
The rules are always evolving and changing, and we’re always trying to make the rules better. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we make it even more convoluted.
That sounds like what happened with the RecycLA situation. The program was supposed to make trash hauling more efficient by giving waste removal companies specific territories to cover. Instead, it has created massive new fees for landlords, who get dinged every time a hauler has to open a gate or put a key in a lock. And they have no competition. It’s pretty much a disaster. How’d we wind up in this mess?
On this one, we did not project accurately what was going to occur. We could have done a deeper dive; we might have looked at doing a pilot project first. We spent a couple of years reviewing it. Sometimes we get things wrong. I’m not ashamed to say that I was wrong on this one.
The city council can seem almost like a Cub Scout troop: Everyone votes the same way; they endorse each other. Is that a recipe for stagnant water and the status quo?
What I learned in Sacramento is how important it was to select the right people to chair the various committees. When I became the president of the city council, I took a lot of time to figure out who should chair what, so we get the kind of in-depth conversations in each committee. The reason we see a lot of votes that are unanimous is because of the work done by the chairs and because we talk to the other members and try to fix their concerns before they get to the floor. Where it relates to endorsing, that’s all about relationships. When you have a body like ours, we believe we can do just about anything. Why would you not want to keep that band playing on?
Across the nation there has been a resurgence of race-based politics. In L.A. it can feel like we live in a liberal bubble. But there are still many high-profile incidents that have provoked tension between police and minority communities. What can we do to bring this city closer together?
Sometimes I do think we live in a bubble. And we’re blessed to live in this bubble. Three years ago I put a conversation about race on the table because I recognized that we got comfortable and avoided these uncomfortable conversations. That’s what’s kind of put us in the situation we’re in now. We created a program called EmbRACE L.A., which brings people together from different races, religions, gays, lesbians. And over the next few months there will be a rollout of 100 dinners across the city where these different people sit down across from each other. That’s huge for us.
Homelessness is a crushing problem for this city. From a policy perspective, it’s like trying to outrun an avalanche. In 2015 seven council members, including you, and the mayor said they would declare a state of emergency, which never happened. How do we get out of this?
I think I was probably in that group of people who viewed this as a no-win situation. I was running for reelection for city council president. I was meeting with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Carla Hall was interviewing me. She and I went back and forth over the homeless crisis. I left that meeting feeling I had been totally political with her. I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I gave. Something happened with me personally, and I decided, excuse my language, “Fuck it, I’m going to tackle this. I don’t care if I win or lose.” The press conference we had was to announce that we’re going to come up with a quick $100 million to put into this. We were throwing down a gauntlet. All of a sudden the county was engaged, and they were going to come up with a comprehensive strategy. And then the state. The mayor had his plans. He bought into what we were doing and became an active partner, even though he would say he got it going. And if he were sitting right here, I’d say, “Yep, Mayor, you were the tip of the spear.”
So what can we say about the mayor as homelessness, affordable housing, and even public safety have trended down?
As long as he allows us to do the things we need to do, then I’m fine with the mayor. He’s been a good partner. But, like I said, we’re going to do what needs to be done.
You’re saying that there might not be the same level of urgency around these issues in the mayor’s office as there is on the city council?
Maybe priorities are different. The mayor and I meet on a regular basis. He’ll lay out things that he’d like to see move, I’ll do the same on behalf of the council, and then we find a way to make it work. So we’ve found a way where he’s in one lane and we’re in another. The lanes meet, and it has not been challenging to work with him.
Your term ends in 2020, which is around the corner. Can we assume you’ll run for something else?
Of course. You see, I don’t like what I do. I love what I do. I cannot wait to wake up in the morning and go to work. I think I would go crazy if I were not a public servant.
So what about being mayor? Could I be mayor?
Yeah, I could do that. Could I be a county supervisor? Yeah, I could do that. Could I do something statewide? Yeah, I could do that. Citywide? Yeah.
But the mayor’s job is coming open.
If you want to make sure you have the next job, then you better work your ass of doing the job you have now. That’s as honest as I can be. This kind of curls back to the mayor-council/Herb-Garcetti relationship. He can take these issues and put them on a national stage because he knows that his city is going to be protected, and the services are going to be delivered. He doesn’t have to worry that when he leaves the state I’m going to change the name of the city to Wessonville. I tell that joke all the time.
If you could imagine an L.A. five years from now—an L.A. in which you’ve been able to make a difference—what would it look like?
I hope L.A. would be affordable.
Now you’re talking crazy.
Yeah, but I like crazy. I would like to have a city where people don’t have to spend 80 percent of their money to pay their rent or mortgage. And I would love to see a better working relationship between the police and the people they police. There is a significant percentage of people in this city who love the LAPD and a percentage who don’t. If we work at it, and you incorporate neighborhood councils and different organizations, we can get better at it.