To the outside world, the Los Angeles City Council is a body that works harmoniously, with members almost always voting unanimously and working congenially when they don't.
But last month, in an unusually candid conversation with a group of black ministers, council President Herb Wesson served up a different portrait of a legislative body, one carved into racial and geographic cliques.
In videotaped remarks posted online by a Los Angeles Baptist ministers organization, Wesson discussed the council's recent, once-a-decade redistricting process, saying the council is divided into four factions: white, black, Latinos and those who represent the San Fernando Valley. He noted an ongoing split between himself and the council's two other black council members, Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks. And he said some of his colleagues deliberately tried to exploit that rift, which became public after Parks and Perry skipped the vote to make Wesson council president.
"People are very smart," Wesson told the predominantly black audience. "When I was elected president … the other factions said 'A-ha! The Negroes are fighting. We're going to use this to our advantage.' "
"Brothers and sisters, it was me against 12 other members of the council," Wesson continued. "I had no backup. I had no faction. And I did the very best I could with what I had. I was able to protect the most important asset that we as black people have, and that's to make sure that a minimum of two of the council people will be black for the next 30 years."
Wesson's statements have given ammunition to critics in Koreatown and elsewhere who are suing to undo the new council boundaries, alleging in part that race was the driving factor in redrawing Wesson's Mid-City district. On Tuesday, some of those critics held a news conference to distribute DVDs featuring excerpts of Wesson's comments, saying his statements bolster the lawsuit against City Hall.
"The lawyers indicate that in a lot of ways, it's damning," said David Roberts, who served on the city's Redistricting Commission and is now running for Perry's seat. "It shows that race was used as a predominant factor in drawing these lines, and we're expressly prohibited from doing that."
Wesson would not discuss details of the redistricting process Tuesday. But both he and the city's lawyers said previously that the new maps are legally defensible.
Wesson's remarks were designed to smooth tensions with ministers who came to testify at City Hall on redistricting two months ago, only to be rebuffed. Some of those ministers have voiced concerns about the council's decision to take the majority of downtown out of Perry's district and USC out of Parks' district.
Pastor Marvis Davis, who heads the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Vicinity, said shifting downtown out of Perry's district leaves her with the poorest constituency in the city. "It is deplorable," he said.
Parks and Perry contend that the council president worked closely with 12 of the council's 15 members on the new council district maps. Two council members on friendlier terms with Wesson also took issue with some of his videotaped statements.
Councilman Mitch Englander, who is white and represents the northwest Valley, said council members may have personality differences but are not split on race. Councilman Paul Koretz, a Wesson ally since their days in the state Assembly, said council members typically split on specific issues, such as whether to pursue layoffs, not on race or ethnicity.
Wesson said his description of racial factions applied to the redistricting process, not day-to-day council relations and decisions. "I was just trying to explain to some people how all of this happens and to be as honest as I can," he said.
Some of Wesson's most candid statements did not make it onto the DVD passed out by activists Tuesday. At one point, he said Asian Americans did not get their own council seat because they "live all over." At another, he discussed the upcoming campaign in Perry's 9th District, which covers the eastern end of South Los Angeles and is now heavily Latino. Perry is running for mayor, leaving that seat open in March.
Wesson told the group that 40% of the district's voters are black. He advised the Baptist ministers to begin vetting candidates, saying there was still a strong chance that another black council member could be elected to the seat.
"If we come together as a people, we will have a council person from the 9th District ... who looks like you and looks like me," he told the audience. "If we do not come together, it's gone. As my grandmother would say, 'It's gone, boy.' "