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The scandal at LA City Hall — again

Episode Summary

The political fallouts that came after the racist audio leak were fast and furious. Come Nov. 8, the end result could be an L.A. City Hall that's pushed even further to the left.

Episode Notes

It was the audio leak that created a political earthquake in Los Angeles.

Soon after the racist comments recorded during a private conversation among three council members and a labor leader leaked to the public, the fallout began. There’ve been resignations, rowdy protests at City Hall and more. The controversy has created a political opening that might fundamentally change the makeup of the City Council by pushing it even further to the left.

With midterms just two weeks away, today we talk about what’s next at L.A. City Hall. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporters Julia Wick and David Zahniser

More reading:

Racist audio leak could push L.A. City Hall further left in Nov. 8 election

Amid noisy protest, the L.A. City Council — listening via earbuds — conducts its business

Krekorian says he’ll work to restore trust in City Hall as L.A. City Council president

Episode Transcription

This is an unedited transcript. We apologize for the mistakes. A corrected transcript is coming soon.

Gustavo: It was the audio leak that created a political earthquake in Los Angeles. It resulted in protests, calls for resignation. 

You know, I think they're all fine and we need to see some resignations soon and a city reckoning over racism at the highest levels of local politics. 

The fact that you

ambi: are trying to continue with business as usual is unacceptable. Unacceptable.

Gustavo: But the controversy has also created a political opening that can fundamentally change the makeup of LA’s city council. With midterms just weeks away, what happens next? 

Beat drop 

I'm Gustava. You're listening to the Times Essential News from the LA Times. It's Wednesday, October 26th, 2022.


Today as part of our special coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, we talk about the most important but often overlooked races in our democracy. The city council, no city's council has gotten more attention nationally over the last couple of weeks as Los Angeles, but long before the racist comments by former and current council members caught on tape went nationwide. It was already a cautionary tale of local governance run a mock.

We’ll talk all about that today, and we’ll also hear from residents of Los Angeles who shared their thoughts in a special town hall hosted by the LA Times and Fox 11 News last week. 

CLIP: Next, you're watching LA In Crisis, The Call for Change. Live on Fox 11

Julia Wick and David Zahniser are my LA Times colleagues. David covers City Hall. Julia does the same, but is also focusing on the mayor's race. Both of Ustedes, welcome to the Times.

David: Thanks for having.

Julia: Thanks for having us. Excited to be here. 

Julia, you and David and I and so many of our colleagues have been covering this story nonstop, so we can sometimes assume everyone knows this story. So just quickly sum up for those who maybe don’t know — and even the folks who do — what this racist leaked audio is all about. 

Julia: So the nutshell is that about a year ago in October, 2021, some of the most powerful people in L.A. politics had a closed door conversation that was ostensibly about the city's once every decade redistricting process.

Julia: The then City Council President Nury Martinez was in the conversation as was the then head of the county Fed, a very powerful labor organization and two other City Council members, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo. During the course of this more than hour long conversation. They did speak about redistricting in a lot of kind of naked political scheming terms. 


Julia: They also, there were racist and derogatory remarks made about kind of a rainbow coalition of groups. They managed to offend almost everyone in the city. And I think some of the most incendiary comments that were made came from then City Council President Martinez. Spoke in very racist terms about a white council member's young Black son,

David: this kid, the one here.

ambi: I

Julia: ask during Black History Month Council

ambi: a

Julia: accessory when, and that I think is part of what really set the fire going in the city. What have

Gustavo: What have each of you been hearing from the public in response to the. Shock disgust. anger, deep pain.

Townhall:  I feel like her about like hearing those comments, especially cuz I'm empowering like community. In KTown, in Westlake, LA and Pico Union, and that's the one where Jill was representing, 

Julia: kind of run the gamut in that sense. There's been a huge amount of public outrage. We've seen a lot of that outrage turn towards demands for resignations as well.

Townhall: they need to step down immediately because every day that they are in office is another racist attack, is another anti-Black attack, another anti-gay, anti-child, anti uh, adoption, anti Armenian. And that's their legacy now that they're serial racist and it's time for them to go. 

David: I would just throw in, I hear a lot of despair

Clip: as an indigenous person myself. There's a need for grieving and the atonement, making things right for the people who have been harmed

David: I think prior to the audio there was a perception that the city is just not capable of fixing problems, and I don't think this was encouraging evidence to make them feel better about it. 

Gustavo: this story has gotten all sorts of national attention. I was just in Mississippi and even they knew what was going on in L.A. with the leak tapes. That's how far the story has gone. But David, what usually doesn't get mentioned nationally is that this is hardly the only scandal going on with L.A. City Hall in recent years. So what's the one and a half minute version of that?

David: that? Well, I mean, we just have had a number of corruption cases.


So first you have Mitch e Englander. He's now off the city council, but he pleaded guilty in an obstruction case. Then you have Jose Huizar also now off the council. He's been charged with bribery and racketeering. 


And then you have Mark Ridley-Thomas, another councilman who is sort of in limbo cuz he's suspended and therefore not able to participate.

He's awaiting trial in a bribery case, which stemmed from his days as an L.A. County supervisor. 


I should point out, both Huizar and Ridley-Thomas have pleaded not guilty and their fate is not resolved. But I mean the accumulation, all these cases, it makes City Hall look terrible and it looks even worse when you've seen guilty pleas from a lobbyist, a real estate consultant, a we, our aid, even weezer's brother


Gustavo: Julia, is there anything about how the city council operates in Los Angeles that also might create some of these issues? There's

Julia: certain things that have been positive as potentially areas for reform, but I also kind of wanna make clear that it's not like these things necessarily spark. This corruption.

One thing that's been brought up specifically in the wake of the leak, two of the main pushes have been a, to increase the number of City Council districts in Los Angeles. Right now we have 15 districts and each represents about a quarter of a million people. The city of New York, whose population is roughly a little more than double the city of L.A., they have 51 council districts.

So there's been kind of worry that the small number of counselors in large districts give people too much concentrated power. And then another kind of issue that's come up is that some people want to reform the redistricting process. Right now it's not an independent commission that draws the lines in L.A. City Council members get to each appoint someone who essentially kind of, to put it in very bold terms, does their bidding on the redistricting commission.

And so there's been a big push in recent weeks to make that process independent. And I should also say both of those Pushe. Have been things that have been discussed for a very long time, but they've gotten a lot of new energy post leak.


David: The thing you have to understand about the recording is, you know, as much as race was discussed, it's really about people looking to preserve their own power.


David: you know, by ensuring that they had districts that would get themselves and their allies reelected, and in some cases they discussed sort of their adversaries not getting as nice a district and that preservation of power is.

Permeates the entire audio. 

Julia: Absolutely.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break, how the next generation of City Council candidates could become a problem for the current establishment.



We know that Nury Martinez, the former L.A. City Council president, she resigned from the council and there's. Large calls for, uh, Kevin de León and Gil, the other council members in the tape to step down, but they haven't. So DIO spokesman continues to say the Councilman's in

Julia: a moment of reflection. As for De León, just yesterday, he

Gustavo: insisted he will not resign.

Julia, can the council simply remove De León and ins?

Julia: No, there does not appear to be any legal mechanism for them to remove fellow council members, which by the way is probably a good thing because we don't really want a situation where there's one unpopular council member and the rest of the group can kind of just vote to get them off.

But it. Create some problems right now and they've been stripped of their committee assignments, by the way, most of their committee assignments. But, um, they're still on council. We do have provisions in the city charter to suspend a council member, but it's only when criminal charges are pending. Cedillo lost his reelection bid in June to a challenger named Eunisses Hernandez, and so he is already will be out in December because of that.

So there's really very little to happen in between now and then. However, De León, his term extends until 2024. And so really the only way short of him resigning for him to leave before then would be if there was a successful recall attempt to recall him from office.


Yeah. And that would be hard, because De León has a lot of political power. He was the former head of the California state Senate and a former assembly member. But David, if De León stays, what would be the repercussions of that?

David: Well, I think it depends on how. Well, his redemption tour goes, I mean, he's basically embarked on a sort of publicity blitz where he is talking to a number of different TV hosts, radio interviewers, and he has about as steep a hill as I can think of to climb, to get back into the public's graces. people have short memories in L.A. on all sorts of political things, and I think we're gonna have to see if he's able to somehow edge his way back into the civic society.

Gustavo: For the record, he has not yet spoken to the L.A. Times, right?

David: Not to me

Julia: that is

Gustavo: accurate. , not to any of us. So David and Julia, all these scandals, federal indictments, corruption allegations, racist tapes. They happened as L.A. is facing huge issues like the economy, housing, homelessness, but with no real consensus from the City Council on what the answers should be, and residents have not forgotten about that: 


So even before the leak, the midterms were shaping up to be a referendum of sorts on how the council would approach problems in the city. David, how does the leak change their approach?

David: I think what's happening in the short term is really they're about style. I mean, I think that there will be some policy shifts, but really the most immediate thing you could see was how the meetings are actually conducted.

So for example, Nury Martinez, she was the council president. Her style was like Hammer. So she was very strict about having public comment. Limited to 30 minutes, that's all you get. You're done. Since the audio became public, they've allowed every commenter to have their say.

Julia: Good morning. There are a, there are a lot of people here that need to be heard today.

Gustavo: A

Julia: lot of people have come to this chambers because they need to be heard

David: The testimony, it's like gone on for hours. 

Testifying tape 

So this week the council's gonna move to a sort of hybrid format for public testimony. You know, where they're gonna allow both in-person comment and people to call in, something Nury did not allow.

So you can see there's kind of this sort of like glasnost almost in terms of their interactions with the public that I find really interesting and I think we're gonna see some policy things come down the pike. Sort of the most immediate reaction to how they do business.

Gustavo: And Julia, how does the leak shift the makeup of the City Council? You mentioned earlier that Cedillo already lost to Eunisses Hernandez, who's more progressive? How are the other council races shaping up?

Julia: The first thing to kind of know is there's the immediate question of what does the leak do in the last month of the election, but the broader kind of phenomenon to be watching.

Is a progressive movement that has been building power in L.A. for several years. Hernandez's victory in June, absolutely spoke to that as state council member Nithya Raman’s victory in 2020 when she ousted an incumbent that's two incumbents ousted in two years. In the past, ousting a city hall incumbent was something that was seen as not impossible, but pretty close to it. Really hard to do. And so right now we're looking at a moment. All of the energy around the leak and anger at the establishment could potentially. Be a pretty real boon to these progressive candidates. 

Gustavo: Speaking of that, there was another audio tape leaked, the former L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, and here he's talking about one of those progressive candidates, Hugo Soto-Martinez. He's a longtime activist and labor union organizer who's running against incumbent Mitch O’Farrell. 

He ain't on your side either? No. Oh no. I know Soto. Who's he want? Mitch. Mitch, So, So her point on Mitch is, I just interrupted her, but I apologize for that. But I wanna make sure that we protect. Allies. Cause this guy is, this guy is your opponent.

David: Well, I mean, I think another thing about Herrera's remarks is that in this race, in the Hollywood district, you know, Mitch O’Farrell has been very pro-cop.

He's talked about wanting to hire more police officers. His opponent, Hugo Soto-Martinez, has talked about fewer cops and diverting money away from the police department. And the thing you need to know about Ron Herrera is he's a Teamster and Teamsters themselves, they represent cops. So it's not a complete surprise to me that he would feel sort of some affinity for Mitch O’Farrell in this particular.

Gustavo: So this is a trip to me because the people in the races tape, they're getting criticized for trying to consolidate Latino power at the expense of Black representation. Here you have Herrera trashing a Latino candidate. David, what's up with that?

David: Well, I think part of what you hear is this sort of wait, your turn view, // which really goes back decades.

Right? The other thing I wanna just point out is like, again, these redistricting maps were about protecting their own power. They were trying to protect their own districts from losing assets. When you look at the actual final maps, the districts that were represented by Black politicians, they're almost unchanged.

So what they did do was they helped themselves and they helped their allies. And at that point, Mitch O’Farrell was one of them. So

Gustavo: And now, this push by Martinez and her allies to have more Latino political power is basically squashed — by themselves. She’s out, Cedillo is leaving, and De León is persona non grata, especially by his fellow councilmembers.  

Townhall: Councilman Marqueece, you come to this from a different perspective. Of course. 

You know, I, I've pretty much done talking to Mr. De León for now. I think if he shows up, there's gonna be a problem on the council floor. Uh, I hope that he doesn't show up 

Julia: It's all pretty thorny. So the first thing to know is that Latinos are underrepresented in L.A. politics and beyond the ugly racism we're hearing on tape, that's also.

Undercurrent That's very real with Tina's account for about half of the city population and makeup, just over a hair of a quarter of the council.


Now, in terms of what's happening immediately in the wake of the leak, I'm not sure anything happens. To Latino power in the short term, and then the number of Latino council members could also potentially grow after the November election if either Hugo Soto-Martinez or Danielle Sandoval win their respective races. Now the quick caveat on special elections is that, uh, De León, who again has said he is not resigning if for some reason he were to change his mind or he's recalled his is a seat, which includes parts of the east side and downtown, where potentially a non-Latino candidate could win. 


And then the third thing to know is that Latino power, much like union power in L.A., is not monolithic.There is a very specific kind of Latino power being discussed on that tape. It's entrenched establishment power that also is sort of synonymous with the personal power of the people who are talking. So for instance, let's say Hugo wins. He would not have been an ally to Martinez and the other council members she's talking to on the tape, he's much further to the left and his kind of closest allies on council. Besides for Hernandez. Again, this is if Soto-Martinez. Were to win. Are not Latina.


ambi: More after the break.




Julia, David – as we’ve been talking about , a struggle over power is really what’s at the center of the L.A. council’s latest  debacle. But councilmembers  recently voted on two reform measures that could  dilute their own power Julia, what are those measures, and why would they do something like that?

Julia: This brings us back to the two things we were speaking about at the top of the podcast, the push to potentially make redistricting independent. And the push to potentially increase the size of the L.A. City Council. What council did when they voted on it, was a very initial step. They essentially did the procedural equivalent of saying, Hey, I'm interested in this. Go find out more about it and then report back to us. What they would have to do to move these things forward is go through a number of hoops in order to get it on the 2024 ballot, which would then send the questions to the voters to decide.

Gustavo: So if those measures pass, David, how much does the power dynamic in Los Angeles change?

David: I think that's a hard thing to answer because. Right now, each council district's about 260,000 people. Even if it's 130,000 people, that's still quite a bit of power. Parallel to all this, I don't know if you notice, but like at the state level, they're doing more and more things to actually take power over real estate development away from the council.


And the funny thing to me is like if anything really diminishes their power in that very moneyed arena, I think those kind of changes are the ones that will diminish their status and power.

Gustavo: Finally, for the both of you, we think of the presidency in the United States as a pinnacle of democracy, but local politics is what tends to truly govern our lives.

So how damaging do each of you see what's happened in L.A. City Hall? Everything we've talked about today to people's. In their local representatives. Because on one hand, everyone that I know is sickened by what's going on in la, even if they're not in L.A. But they're also paying attention to things like redistricting and other topics in a way I've never seen.

So maybe that's a reason to hope people will be more engaged in politics and democracy at least.

David: I mean, we haven't really pulled the public on the council itself, you know what I mean? So I don't think we have a. Sense of the voters use their own representatives. I would say before the audio, it was kind of split.

So I mean, in June, which was our primary here in L.A., you had three incumbents. Bob Blumenfield, Monica Rodriguez, Curren Price, They all easily won reelection and in fact, Curren Price. He's a Black councilman who represents a four fifth Latino district. And on the audio you hear Nury Martinez. Working hard to try and protect him and make sure he wins reelection.

It's, it's a really major facet of that audio. On the other hand, Gil lost in June. As uh, Julia mentioned Mitch O’Farrell is obviously in great political peril. 

Gustavo: Julia does this cleanse, democracy, and we're all, we'll all be better for it. , I didn't

Julia: know this was a comedy podcast, .

Gustavo: Um, we try,

Julia: I mean, I think people are really depressed about the state of the city right now.

There there's a lot of anger. There's a lot of pain. But I think in some ways it's also been galvanizing.

I don't think a lot of Angelinas knew who Nury Martinez. Was before the leak. I think it's gotten a lot more people paying attention to L.A. City Council, as you mentioned. And I also think that too has been part of a years long kind of trend of people paying more attention to L.A. City Council. I think starting in 2020 with both the pandemic and the George Floyd protests, both of which put in different ways, a huge amount of light on the functions of local government, The pandemic with restrictions and the George Floyd protests with police funding.

We saw kind of a whole new generation of people, and generation isn't the right word, cuz. All different ages, although many were young, kind of start really closely following L.A. City Hall and calling into meetings and organizing, 


and so I imagine that it will further catalyze that, but that's something we've been seeing over the course of a couple of years.

Gustavo: David Zahniser, Julia Wick, thank you so much for this conversation and keep up the great work.

David: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having us.MUX OUT



Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. 

Denise Guerra and David Toledo were the jefes on this episode, Heba Elorbany edited it and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Run this now through the end of October: And hey… we’re building a Dia de Muertos audio altar this year and would love to include your memories of your loved ones. Call ‪(619) 800-0717‬ and leave us a voicemail with your own ofrendas. Tell us who you are, where you live and then tell us a great story about a friend, a family member, someone dear to you who has passed on and joined the ancestors. We want to air an entire episode with those stories around Day of the Dead. Thanks in advance..and again, the number is (619) 800-0717. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.