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De León and other council members tussle on redistricting

Then-mayoral candidate Kevin de León with María Elena Durazo at his campaign headquarters in Los Angeles in 2022.
Then-mayoral candidate Kevin De León, with state Sen. María Elena Durazo, talks with campaign volunteers at his campaign headquarters in Los Angeles in 2022.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Members of the City Council all seem to agree that Los Angeles needs independent redistricting.

But the question that drove a fiery and at times acidic debate Wednesday was whether reform should be driven by the state Legislature, or through a parallel local effort already in the works.

The sparring came as the council considered opposing a proposed state law introduced by state Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) and a coalition of L.A.-area lawmakers that could force the city to establish an independent redistricting commission.

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The council ultimately voted 11 to 2 to formally oppose the bill, with Councilmembers Monica Rodriguez and Kevin de León registering the only “no” votes.

Should the law pass, it’s not immediately clear whether the state has the power to dictate the reform on the city level.

Dec. 7, 2022

At face value, the disagreement in chambers centered on legitimacy: Was state intervention the only way to avoid creating a process that could be manipulated by the council, as Rodriguez suggested? Or would ceding power to a meddling state Legislature on the eve of local reform be an abdication of responsibility, as Council President Paul Krekorian argued?

But the discussion also appeared to reopen deep wounds, puncturing the veneer of normalcy reestablished in the months since an incendiary leaked audio recording upended City Hall last fall.

“You truly have no shame, Kevin de León,” Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez chided his colleague after De León spoke in support of the bill. “I mean to come here and speak on this subject — the very subject that you had your hands in — is beyond me. Is this a Hollywood movie that I’m watching right now?”

The recording — which The Times first reported on in October — revealed City Council members and a prominent labor leader jockeying for favorable districts for themselves and their allies during a 2021 conversation peppered with racist and derogatory comments. Of those present during the recording, only De León still holds his position.

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Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson tweeted a single word in all capital letters while De León was talking: “GALL.”

After Soto-Martínez accused his colleague of being shameless several more times in both English and Spanish, De León returned to the microphone, saying he wanted to “address the elephant in the room” and forcefully pushing back on “unfounded accusations” that the city’s redistricting process “was tainted or biased.”

De León pointed out that the council, during the redistricting process, made only minor changes to the districts represented by Black council members.

The population of the 8th District, which is represented by Harris-Dawson, was altered by less than half of 1%, he said.

The 10th District, currently represented by Councilmember Heather Hutt, was redrawn to ensure that it took in all, not a portion, of the Koreatown and Little Ethiopia communities — but also was largely unchanged, he said.

Those changes empowered communities of color, De León said, following years of complaints that Koreatown has been divided among several council districts.

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“Know what you say, my friend, before you say you it,” De León told Soto-Martinez. “Deal with the facts, not with the narratives or the political propaganda agenda.”

The city-led effort to create an independent redistricting commission is currently in the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform, where the complexities of what a truly independent commission should look like are being hashed out.

Reforming the city’s redistricting process requires a public City Charter amendment vote, so action by the City Council would put a charter amendment on the ballot for voters to consider.

In her support for the state bill, Rodriguez accused her colleagues of trying to “slow walk” the move to independent redistricting — an assertion Krekorian vigorously denied.

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“This charter reform will be on the 2024 ballot, period,” Krekorian said Wednesday, adding that the product developed by the ad hoc committee will be done in the public eye “with complete input from all stakeholders across the city.”

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Even if the proposed state law were to pass, it’s not clear whether the state has the power to dictate reform on the city level or if a charter amendment would still be needed. Such a matter would likely end up in court.

Durazo, the state senator who introduced the bill, sent a stinging rebuke to the council Tuesday, a day ahead of the vote.

“Frankly, how can you perform the task of creating independent redistricting when you continue to allow your self-interest to control your efforts?” Durazo wrote, arguing that council members had been quick to oppose her bill but had yet to move their own process forward.

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