The Mark Ridley-Thomas-Nury Martinez Battle Levels Up

Cityside Column: Court rulings and community protests are the latest in the dispute over the District 10 council seat
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When it comes to Los Angeles politics, most eyes are on the upcoming mayor’s race. That’s understandable, but the contest to succeed Eric Garcetti is not the fiercest battle around. Not even close.

That title goes to the throwdown pitting Mark Ridley-Thomas against the cadre of elected officials who last October suspended him from his City Council post and yanked his salary. The moves came after he was indicted by federal authorities on bribery and conspiracy charges.

This is a next-level political fight. The battle, which has already involved a clutch of attorneys, angry clergy members and frustrated District 10 residents, will probably get even more divisive before it is resolved.

On one side is Ridley-Thomas, who has been a force in city, county and state politics for three decades. Although he has stayed publicly mum as he awaits an August trial, a pantheon of community leaders are advocating for him, seeking wins in both kind of courts—the judicial and the one of public opinion. There was even a Friday morning rally outside of City Hall demanding, as a flyer blared, “transparency before secrecy.”

On the other side is Nury Martinez, who has emerged as a strong and skilled pol since becoming president of the City Council in 2020, but who now may be facing her sternest test. Martinez can marshal the resources of the city, but was dealt a significant setback on Feb. 24, when Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel quashed her attempt to install former Councilmember Herb Wesson in the District 10 seat.

Everything stems from Oct. 13, when federal prosecutors hit Ridley-Thomas with a 20-count indictment. They alleged that while he was on the County Board of Supervisors, he conspired with USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn to provide his son, former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, admission to a university graduate school program, a scholarship and a paid teaching gig. Court documents assert that in exchange, Ridley-Thomas promised to direct lucrative county contracts to the school. Ridley-Thomas and Flynn have pleaded not guilty.

Although Ridley-Thomas offered to stop attending council and committee meetings, Martinez and her supporters wanted more. They may have assumed they had precedent on their side. After all, in June 2020 the panel had suspended District 14 Councilmember José Huizar after he was indicted as part of a different federal investigation, this one involving corruption and the real estate development industry. A few days after the council action, City Controller Ron Galperin said he would stop paying Huizar his $214,000-a-year salary.

Although Huizar has pleaded not guilty, he did not contest the moves, and quickly disappeared from view. Perhaps Martinez and her allies expected Ridley-Thomas would also go quietly.

In any case, they moved faster than the council’s typical sleepy tortoise speed. Just a week after the indictment, the panel voted 11-3 to suspend Ridley-Thomas—one of three Black councilmembers—from the seat he had won the previous year. Galperin pulled a salary sequel, announcing he would stop paying Ridley-Thomas.

Right now, if there is anything to be surprised by, it should be that anyone is actually surprised that Ridley-Thomas fought back. As I wrote two days after his suspension, Ridley-Thomas has never been one to shrink from a challenge, whether that involves battling stubborn Sheriff Alex Villanueva or turning a defunct medical facility once known as “Killer King” into the landmark Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.

One didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see the future. “He is a skilled tactician who usually outthinks his opponents,” I wrote at the time. “A fight has already broken out, but the bigger battles are to come.”

Those battles erupted last month as Martinez maneuvered to fill the seat. This made a certain kind of sense; although Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff, Karly Katona, was made the official district caretaker in November, she didn’t have a vote on the council, and without a vote, you’ve got little juice. Martinez coordinated with allies in the district that includes the neighborhoods of Crenshaw, Mid-City and Koreatown. The discussions resulted in Martinez seeking to put Wesson in the seat.

The counter-move was multi-pronged. A coalition of a dozen Black South Los Angeles religious leaders and a pair of state lawmakers were among those who advocated either for Ridley-Thomas’ suspension to be lifted, or for the door to be left open for his return to office if he was acquitted or the charges were dropped. Attorney John Sweeney, working on behalf of some district residents and the local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which Ridley-Thomas helmed in the 1980s), took the matter to court.

On Feb. 22, the council voted to install Wesson in the seat until the end of the year. He didn’t last that long, as two days later Strobel granted a temporary restraining order halting the move, finding that Wesson, having already served three terms on the council, was not eligible. (Strobel also ruled against a request to lift Ridley-Thomas’ suspension.)

Wesson’s placement is on hold at least until March 17, and perhaps indefinitely. It looks like a face plant for Martinez, and one wonders how her legal consultants didn’t foresee the result coming. After the ruling, Martinez issued a statement professing her aim to provide the district with a voting member, and saying she would consult with the City Attorney to determine legal options.

What’s next? Probably a lot. Although Martinez’s Wesson play blew up, it’s hard to imagine that she will elect to leave the seat open. Assume she is consulting with attorneys before revealing her next move.

At the same time, don’t expect that the pro-Ridley-Thomas side, which recently launched a website, cd10voices.com, is content with a single court victory. This win may embolden them to push for more.

There is the very real possibility that the situation ends up ugly for almost everyone. Ridley-Thomas, after all, is facing the weight of the federal government, and while the U.S. Department of Justice is not infallible, they win more cases than they lose.

Martinez and the other council members, meanwhile, now know precisely who they are battling. But one legal loss could lead to another.

Then there are those almost overlooked: District 10 constituents. While the city will still fill the potholes and trim the trees, the residents don’t have a strong voice in City Hall. It’s impossible to know when that will change.