Something momentous just went down at City Hall: Los Angeles City Council unanimously elected District 6 officeholder Nury Martinez to become the body’s next president. When she takes over the post in January, Martinez will be the first woman council president in more than three decades and the first-ever Latina president.
Martinez had the backing of current president Herb Wesson, who is leaving the post so he can focus on his run for a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
If you weren’t aware that there’s a president of the City Council, that’s understandable—civic engagement isn’t always a thing here, as evidenced by election day turnout that can hover around 20 percent. That said, the council president wields a lot of power, and the person who holds the gavel generally gains a level of notoriety above the other 14 council members.
Here’s a quick look at what’s unfolding.
The council president doesn’t earn any more money than the other council members—they all oversee large districts with about 250,000 residents and pull in approximately $200,000 a year. You don’t get juicy benefits like a nicer car, an extra vote on contentious matters, or an additional term in office.
Rather, the power comes in influence, and how that influence is used depends on who occupies the seat. The council president oversees the agenda, and gets to serve as acting mayor when the real mayor travels out of town. This role is usually ceremonial, but on occasion it can be much more—during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mayor Jim Hahn was in Washington, D.C. on business, and Council President Alex Padilla was the one who appeared on local TV, seeking to reassure frightened Angelenos.
There are unofficial duties—the council president is often a de facto dealmaker who seeks to push policy and build consensus, whether by carrot or stick. That’s no easy task when some big egos are involved.
Perhaps the most important job is assigning the other council members to various committees, and not all committees are created equal. Allies tend to land prominent posts, such as chairing panels like the council’s Public Safety or the Planning and Land Use Management committees—the latter has sway over a lot of major real estate projects, meaning deep-pocketed developers want to stay in the good graces of PLUM members. This can lead to donations to campaign and officeholder accounts.
The council presidency can be the launch pad to big things, and simply being ambitious and skilled enough to secure votes from eight Type A politicians can indicate the type of political instincts that lead to a long career. Padilla is now the California Secretary of State and is often talked about as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate. His successor as council president was Eric Garcetti, who of course is now the mayor.
Wesson, who will officially step down in January, is running for another powerful post. His time in charge has led to relationships with unions and businesses that are backing him in that race, though he faces some strong opposition.
The council’s diversity problem
Diversity is a frequent topic of conversation in City Hall, but that is not reflected in local elected office. Only two of the 15 current council members are female: Martinez, who was elected in 2013, and District 7 rep Monica Rodriguez, who won her spot in 2017.
None of the three citywide elected officials—mayor, city attorney, or city controller—are women, meaning only two of 18 elected posts in the nation’s second-largest city are held by women (though the previous city controller was Wendy Greuel). When Martinez joined the council, she was the only female elected official in the city.
Things are reversed at the county level. At the Board of Supervisors, four of the five members are women.
Past makeups of the city council have included more women, and Martinez will not be the first woman council president. That distinction belongs to Pat Russell, a Valley councilwoman who held office for 18 years (before term limits were in place in the city). Russell served as council president from 1983 to ’87, though she was also the rare incumbent who lost her seat, falling to Ruth Galanter.
Galanter would serve as the council president pro tempore (the second in command), and after longtime council president John Ferraro died in 2001, she was briefly the acting president of the panel.
She’s got next
Martinez is viewed by observers as sharp and politically savvy—she managed to springboard from a seat on the LAUSD School Board to the city council. She grew up in the Valley, where constituents have long complained that they receive fewer resources than Angelenos who reside in downtown and other parts of the city. As the first council president to come from the Valley since Padilla, she has the opportunity to address that matter.
As for her agenda in the post, look to her past for indicators. Martinez has been active on many issues important to the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and her bio touts moves including working to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the city and family-oriented efforts such as pushing for paid parental leave. She has focused on addressing homelessness, and also advocated for rent relief for tenants who face spikes before new limits on increases take place. She helped secure $3 million for the Emergency Renters Relief Program.
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