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California

In South L.A., a veteran Democrat finds himself facing candidates on his left

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is one of five candidates seeking to succeed City Councilman Herb Wesson in Tuesday’s election.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Over a political career spanning three decades, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has forged a reputation as a loyal Democrat, an ally of organized labor and a longtime champion of police reform.

Now, as he seeks to rejoin the Los Angeles City Council for a single term, the veteran politician is facing opponents who are, in many ways, running to his left — sometimes considerably so.

One of the candidates in the race, community activist Channing Martinez, is calling for a 50% reduction in the Los Angeles Police Department budget, saying the savings should go toward affordable housing and other services. Martinez and another contender, former city Commissioner Aura Vasquez, say they would push Metro to make bus and train trips completely free, boosting ridership and cutting emissions.

Vasquez, Martinez and two other candidates want the city to impose a 2,500-foot buffer between oil drilling sites and homes. Ridley-Thomas’ opposition to that idea shows the district needs “someone with a fresh perspective,” said Grace Yoo, a lawyer waging her second bid for the seat.

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“He’s the status quo, and the status quo is usually conservative,” she said.

Ridley-Thomas, 65, bristles at the idea that he is in any way conservative, pointing to his voting record, policy initiatives and endorsements. Many of the positions taken by his rivals are unrealistic, he said, and show that they don’t understand how government works.

“Having been at five different debates … I am abundantly clear about their lack of knowledge, just basic working knowledge, of how the city functions,” said the county supervisor, who faces term limits this year.

Ridley-Thomas warned that a citywide buffer around oil wells could be financially reckless, exposing taxpayers to expensive legal payouts. He argued that the LAPD needs the staffing it has, in part to continue providing community policing. And he said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cannot afford to eliminate bus and train fares entirely — and should instead look at making rides free for students.

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Los Angeles City Council candidate Channing Martinez
Los Angeles City Council candidate Channing Martinez says he wants to cut the LAPD budget in half, moving the savings into affordable housing and other services.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Money and endorsements

Ridley-Thomas and rivals are seeking to succeed Councilman Herb Wesson, a veteran politician who has also reached term limits. Wesson, now running for Ridley-Thomas’ seat, has spent nearly 15 years representing the 10th District, which stretches from Koreatown to Crenshaw Boulevard and takes in such neighborhoods as West Adams and Mid-City.

By many measures, Ridley-Thomas is the front-runner, far outpacing his rivals in fundraising and institutional support. He’s backed by the county Democratic Party and an array of elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

A resident of Leimert Park, he was elected to the City Council in 1991, months after police were captured on video beating motorist Rodney King. In office, he fought for more rigorous oversight of the LAPD and pushed for the departure of then-Police Chief Daryl Gates.

After a stint in the state Legislature, Ridley-Thomas joined the Board of Supervisors, working to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook, which had been shut down following years of mismanagement, and bring light rail to Crenshaw Boulevard and LAX. He also championed initiatives to fight homelessness, including Measure H, which pays for rent subsidies, shelter beds and other services.

Under the city’s term limit law, Ridley-Thomas is eligible for only one more four-year term — which has fueled speculation that he will run for mayor in 2022.

While Ridley-Thomas has campaigned on his endorsements from high-profile Democrats, Vasquez is emphasizing her support from left-leaning activists, including the environmental group Sunrise Movement Los Angeles and Our Revolution L.A.

‘Standing for the underdog’

Vasquez, 41, is running as an environmental activist, saying the city needs to move to 100% renewable energy. A former commissioner at the Department of Water and Power, she pushed for the city to phase out three gas-fired power plants. On the campaign trail, she has promised to seek a big hike in L.A.'s hourly minimum wage, taking it to $20 by 2025.

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Former DWP Commissioner Aura Vasquez
Former DWP Commissioner Aura Vasquez, now running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, says she’s “standing for the underdog.”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Vasquez, an immigrant from Colombia, said she understands the struggles of district residents, including those who are undocumented.

“What’s really being a progressive today, if it’s not standing for the underdog and people that work hard?” she said.

Martinez, who lives in Leimert Park, was 3 years old when Ridley-Thomas first took office. Since 2014, he has been a paid staffer with the Bus Riders Union, which has fought for better bus service and against fare hikes.

As a community organizer, Martinez is pushing for the removal of police patrols from Metro buses and train stations, a move aimed at ending harassment of black passengers. As a candidate, the 32-year-old has defended his proposal to slash LAPD staffing, saying other reforms — body cameras, oversight panels — have not kept police from killing black Angelenos.

“The only way to make them accountable is to cut their budget,” he said.

Martinez, 32, said that, if elected, he also would work to ensure that 50% of all new housing is set aside as affordable for low-income households.

Fighting City Hall

Yoo, 48, is a lawyer who spent much of her career in the nonprofit arena. For nearly a decade, she was in charge of the L.A. office of the Korean American Coalition, a group dedicated to increasing civic engagement among Korean Americans.

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Yoo came to the U.S. from South Korea when she was 3 and did not speak English when she entered kindergarten. In recent years, she made the transition from nonprofit executive to City Hall activist, waging lawsuits over the plans for chopping down shade trees, redrawing council districts and construction of a 27-story apartment tower in Koreatown.

Los Angeles City Council candidate Grace Yoo
Los Angeles City Council candidate Grace Yoo greets members of the audience after a candidate forum in January.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Yoo failed in her effort to overturn the council district boundaries. But city officials backed down on their plan to cut down a stretch of street trees in Hollywood. And she prevailed in her fight against the Koreatown tower, with a judge striking down city approval of the project.

“I stand up and will fight for the regular citizen who needs a little help,” she said. “Because most people don’t have the time, bandwidth or expertise to make it happen.”

Yoo, Vasquez and Martinez have called for a rent freeze on market-rate apartments, though they have differed on the details. Ridley-Thomas, in turn, has spoken in favor of resurrecting redevelopment agencies, saying such a move would increase the production of affordable housing.

Vasquez and Yoo also favor an increase in the size of the City Council, saying such a move would make the city more responsive. Ridley-Thomas opposes the idea, saying that would wind up “bloating” the city bureaucracy.

“The people do not wish to have government expanded,” he said.

Rivals of Ridley-Thomas have hit him over his donations from real estate developers and fossil-fuel interests. He, in turn, said his opponents have shown they don’t know the difference between the city, the county and joint agencies such as Metro.

Vasquez, for example, has sought to link Ridley-Thomas to the problems surrounding Proposition HHH, a bond measure to build homeless housing. County supervisors have no responsibility for HHH, which was a city ballot initiative.

At one campaign event, the candidates were asked how they would stay in touch with residents. Martinez responded by promising to spend 90% of his time in the community and 10% at City Hall. “I don’t want to spend five, eight, 10 hours in City Hall going through papers,” he said.

“If you’re not there,” Ridley-Thomas shot back, “somebody else will eat your lunch and drink your milk.”

Also on the ballot is Melvin Snell, an activist who has spent $19.57 on his campaign, according to city reports.


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