Best and Worst 2021: The Year in Los Angeles Politics

From investigations to elections and a potential recall
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Politics is never gentle, but in Los Angeles, 2021 was rougher than most. Maybe it was the coronavirus. Maybe it was the approaching city elections. Maybe it was the fact that the FBI appears to have decided that L.A. is the most corrupt place in the country. Probably it was all of those and more, but the net result is that the halls of power shook all year long.

Here are some of the lowlights and highlights of the political year.

The Feds Are Watching, Part 1: As 2021 dawned, political observers were following the federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving city officials and the real estate development industry. In January, former District 12 Councilmember Mitch Englander was sentenced to a 14-month term after pleading guilty to one count of falsifying material facts, and in June he began doing time at a federal penitentiary in Arizona. In September, attorneys for disgraced former District 14 rep José Huizar tried to get his case against him thrown out, but the U.S. Attorney’s office continues to push forward on what it labeled Operation Casino Loyale. Altogether nine people have been charged, and Huizar and former Building and Safety Department General Manager Ray Chan could stand trial next year (both maintain their innocence).

mark ridley-thomas
Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

The Feds Are Watching, Part 2: City Hall was rocked on Oct. 13, when federal prosecutors indicted Mark Ridley-Thomas. They allege that while on the County Board of Supervisors, he worked with a USC School of Social Work dean to secure graduate school admission, a scholarship and a job for his son, former State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, in exchange for L.A. County directing contracts worth millions to the school. The elder Ridley-Thomas, a legend with more than 30 years in elected office, and who won a post on the City Council last year, has denied wrongdoing. Eleven council members immediately turned on their colleague, and though he volunteered to step away from council meetings, on Oct. 20 they voted to suspend him without pay. Groups of constituents have called for Ridley-Thomas to be reinstated, saying their district lacks representation, but the council has not budged.

The Feds Are Watching, Part 3: Yet another federal investigation, this one involving the Department of Water and Power, blew up in late November. Attorney Paul Paradis pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge for his role in a ruse to represent the city in its suit against PricewaterhouseCoopers over a bungled DWP billing system rollout, while he was also secretly representing ratepayers who were suing the city. But the big tumble came a few days later, when ex-DWP General Manager David Wright pleaded guilty to one count of bribery. Federal documents dripped with lurid details involving a scheme that had Wright helping funnel rich department contracts to Paradis. The payoff? Once Wright retired, he would join Paradis’ business, where he would get a $1 million salary and a luxury Mercedes.

Passage to India: Speculation about whether Mayor Eric Garcetti would finish his term began almost the moment his political pal Joe Biden won the presidential election. Although a rumored desired Cabinet appointment never came, months of speculation ended in July when the president nominated Garcetti to be the U.S. Ambassador to India. From there, things moved at the speed of lazy molasses, and it was five months until Garcetti appeared before a Senate committee. His Dec. 14 hearing was softball city, with only a cursory question related to alleged misconduct by the mayor’s former aide, Rick Jacobs. Garcetti, who was ever-present early in the pandemic, vastly decreased his visibility during the latter half of 2021.

LA mayoral candidates from left to right, Karen Bass, Mike Feuer, Craig Greiwe, and Jessica Lall (Photo by Jon Regardie)

The Mayor’s Race Ignites: With Garcetti on the way out, attention turned to who will succeed him. District 15 Councilman Joe Buscaino entered the race in March, a year after City Attorney Mike Feuer launched his bid. Then, in the fall, things went pop-pop-pop, and in the span of eight days business executive Jessica Lall, District 14 Councilman Kevin de León and U.S. Rep Karen Bass all threw their hat in the ring. Bass has claimed frontrunner status, and the season has been one of video-making, message-honing and, of course, furious fundraising. The first candidate forums took place this month.

Sheriff’s Showdown: Many other elected posts will be on the ballot next year, but the only race beyond the mayoral contest to blow up in 2021 was the one for L.A. County Sheriff. Unpredictable incumbent Alex Villanueva spent the year battling whomever crossed his path, downplaying the idea of deputy cliques operating in Sheriff’s stations, and pulling oddities like posting a photo on social media of him with Republican gubernatorial pretender Larry Elder. Foes are coming at him from all directions, among them LAX Chief Cecil Rhambo; LASD personnel including Commander Eli Vera, and captains Matt Rodriguez and Britta Steinbrenner; and Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. The mud is already flying.

The Battle at Echo Park Lake: Homelessness in Los Angeles was an inescapable topic in 2021, and the flashpoint was a sprawling tent encampment at Echo Park Lake. In March, District 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell worked to get the hundreds of people living in the park to move into city-provided housing or hotels. While many accepted, activists argued that O’Farrell and the city were unfairly cracking down on people experiencing homelessness. Crowds of protesters showed up at night and clashed with police, and during the proceedings scores of people were detained, including some journalists. In the following months the park was closed and spruced up. It has reopened, but fencing surrounds it, an effort to prevent the tents from returning.

Bonin Brouhaha: The newest political cudgel is the recall, and although efforts to take down Gov. Gavin Newsom and District Attorney George Gascon have failed, opponents of District 11 Councilman Mike Bonin are gaining traction. On Nov. 10 they submitted a petition with tens of thousands of signatures in favor of recalling the two-term Westside rep, and the city is now verifying the names. It’s the latest twist in a protracted battle, again over homelessness. Angry district residents complain that Bonin has allowed encampments to proliferate, including for months on the Venice Beach boardwalk, and that public spaces have been essentially lost. Bonin, meanwhile, asserts that the takedown effort is sparked by right-wingers and Republicans opposed to his progressive stances. Expect a recall vote sometime next year.

A Redistricting Mess: Once a decade, the city redraws the borders of its 15 council districts based on the results of the latest U.S. Census. While state line-drawing involves an independent panel, the city process that played out in the fall was packed with political meddling. Council members Paul Krekorian and Nithya Raman were apoplectic over draft maps that would have decimated their districts. In November, Council President Nury Martinez took charge, and city officials themselves got deep into the cartography. The final maps allowed Krekorian to hold on to much of his turf, but Raman, who was just elected last year, saw her district chopped and diced. Already calls are out to make the 2031 redistricting process truly independent.