Herb Wesson’s skills will be tested as L.A. council president
Before getting into politics, Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson went door to door selling cookware. After that, he sold tires. Then there was that stint as a bill collector, cajoling people down on their luck to make good on their unpaid debts.
The powers of persuasion he developed then — and has honed since inside government — will be sorely tested in the coming months as he steps into his newest political post: president of the Los Angeles City Council.
A former speaker of the state Assembly, Wesson is in line to run a 15-member body criticized by the public for getting distracted, ignoring policy details and sometimes even failing to show up. But Wesson, who lives in the Mid-City neighborhood of Wellington Square, said he intends to safeguard the council’s reputation.
“My job is to make them look good. My job is to put them in a position to deliver on the promises they made to their constituents. Their desires come before mine.”
Wesson plans to occupy the president’s chair in January, ending a six-year stint by council President Eric Garcetti. Although a vote of support from the council doesn’t come until Wednesday, he already has promised to make meetings move more briskly and clamp down on “out of line” behavior by members of the public who address the council.
The leadership change worries Neighborhood Council member Jack Humphreville, who has criticized the council’s decision to give a $2.6-million loan to a restaurant in Wesson’s district.
Wesson, who until recently ran the powerful committee that allocates tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, “never met a deal he doesn’t like,” Humphreville said.
With Wesson as president, “what you’re going to have is all this Sacramento transactional stuff,” he added, alluding to the councilman’s years in the Legislature.
Wesson disagreed with that portrayal, saying he has a track record of bringing “peace” to the council floor by bridging differences on contentious issues. “That’s not deal-making,” he said. “I think that’s leadership.”
Judging from his life story, Wesson has little in common with the current president. Garcetti, a Rhodes Scholar who attended the London School of Economics, was only 34 when he took the post. The son of a two-term Los Angeles County district attorney, Garcetti has a well-known talent for musical theater and opened up his environmentally friendly home for a spread in Dwell magazine.
Wesson, the son of an Ohio auto worker, celebrated his 60th birthday last week. Reared in Cleveland, he was the first in his family to go to college, and as a teenager cleaned oily factory equipment.
When his dad died at age 42, his father’s co-workers collected $800 to send Wesson to the West Coast to start a new life.
On the council, Wesson keeps his activities below the radar. While Councilman Tom LaBonge boisterously greets audience members and Councilman Bill Rosendahl rails on national policy issues, the 5-foot-5 Wesson frequently remains silent or sneaks out for a smoke on the south patio. But he wins praise from several colleagues for his ability to craft compromise.
“He has amazing skills in working with people,” Rosendahl said. “He doesn’t put ego into it. He’s quiet about it and he’s respectful.”
Those people skills have not charmed every colleague. Wesson is poised to become the council’s first African American president. Yet his two black colleagues — Bernard C. Parks and Jan Perry — have declined to say whether they will support him.
Wesson became intrigued by politics in the early 1970s while studying at Lincoln University, a predominantly black liberal arts college. The turning point came when Rep. Ron Dellums, a California Democrat, delivered a speech on the Pennsylvania campus.
“I got goose bumps,” Wesson said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I turned to my fraternity brothers and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Despite that interest, Wesson did not get a firm foothold in California politics until 1987, when Nate Holden won a seat on the City Council.
Wesson went to work for him, first as a campaign worker, then an aide and finally chief of staff. By the 1990s, he was running the office of then-county Supervisor Yvonne Burke.
Wesson was elected to the Assembly in 1998 and won a seat on the council in 2005, representing a district that includes Koreatown, Mid-City and West Adams.
As president, Wesson will join the powerful committee that negotiates city employee labor agreements. He also will set the agenda for each council meeting. For now, however, he said he has no interest in putting his name on a spate of new proposals and resolutions.
“I don’t need to take credit for anything, other than hopefully running an orderly house,” he said.
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