L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson comes out on top

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson after receiving a congratulatory phone call the day after he was elected to a third term.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In a Los Angeles election with an assortment of winners, no one at City Hall had a more triumphant Tuesday night than City Council President Herb Wesson.

Voters reelected Wesson in a landslide, giving the former state Assembly speaker a third and final term in office. They overwhelmingly approved his ballot measures to consolidate city elections with state and federal contests. And, by changing the election date, Angelenos gave Wesson an extra 18 months in office — allowing him to stay until 2020, right when a seat occupied by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas becomes vacant due to term limits.

For Wesson, the accomplishments didn’t stop there.

The veteran political operative helped one close ally, Councilman Jose Huizar, overcome a challenge from former county Supervisor Gloria Molina. He also assisted Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a nonprofit executive who handily won an open council seat in South Los Angeles.


For Wesson, it gets sweeter: Harris-Dawson will replace Bernard C. Parks, Wesson’s sharp-tongued critic on the council.

That clean sweep leaves Wesson, whose district stretches from Crenshaw to Koreatown, in “a very privileged position,” said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

“He was a strong council president before, but he’s way above that now,” Regalado said.

Wesson, 63, will have additional clout in the coming months, when the council wades into a series of thorny issues. They include the regulation of digital billboards, a proposed hike in the citywide minimum wage, a policy for giving taxpayer funds to L.A. hotel developers, whether to craft rules addressing mansionization in low-rise residential neighborhoods and what to do if a downtown NFL stadium fails to materialize.

With a united council behind him, Wesson could seek greater influence over Mayor Eric Garcetti’s policy proposals. And he could play an outsized role in the race to replace Councilman Tom LaBonge, currently a tight contest between former council staffer Carolyn Ramsay and community health director David Ryu.

One day after the election, Wesson said he was “unbelievably pleased” that voters also had reelected four of his colleagues — Huizar, Nury Martinez, Paul Krekorian and Mitchell Englander. But the council president sought to downplay his election-night accomplishments, and declined to go into specifics about how much money he had raised to help achieve them.


“People give me more credit than maybe I deserve,” said Wesson, who won a seat in the Assembly in 1998 and joined the council in 2005. “I think I do very well in working with other people and listening and trying to see what their agendas are. And I’m not afraid to push those agendas.”

Wesson, the son of an auto worker who was raised in Cleveland, found politics after trying a succession of jobs — some in sales and at least one in a factory. The first in his family to go to college, he is viewed as a shrewd tactician, someone who goes to the mat to protect his council allies.

Wesson played a crucial role in Huizar’s race, headlining a kickoff fundraiser for the Eastside councilman just days after Huizar was sued by an aide for sexual harassment. That case was settled out of court, and by election day Huizar had raised more than $850,000 — setting a record for L.A. council races.

“I’m just happy that he was elected,” Wesson said. “And any help I gave him, it looks like it paid off.”

Tuesday’s victories represented something of a turnaround for Wesson.

In 2013, he had put his political reputation on the line by asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax hike to help address the city’s budget crisis. That measure was defeated after a handful of mayoral candidates, including Garcetti, came out against it.

This year, an array of reliable Wesson supporters — billboard companies, real estate developers, garment manufacturers and the Department of Water and Power’s largest employee union — stepped up to finance Charter Amendments 1 and 2, the proposals to hold local elections in even-numbered years.

Although Garcetti declined to take a position on the two measures, voters overwhelmingly favored them.

“It was a good night for the working men and women in the city of L.A.,” said Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which put $25,000 into passage of the measures and at least $295,000 into the reelection of Huizar and Martinez.

Some City Hall watchdogs, however, expressed dismay Wednesday over both passage of the amendments and Wesson’s powerful hold on the council.

Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats, warned that the council is in danger of turning into a “Sacramento-style environment” where special interests dominate and the leadership is rarely questioned.

“There is a need for accountability and honest debate, which has faltered under the council president’s tenure,” he said.

The arrival of Harris-Dawson is expected to ensure that L.A.’s legislative body falls even more closely in line with Wesson. In July, Harris-Dawson will take over the seat occupied by Parks, who successfully fought Wesson’s sales tax hike and tangled with him over the drawing of new council district boundaries.

Harris-Dawson said Tuesday’s election results had ushered in a “different era” for the council.

“One of the messages that got sent resoundingly from the community is that they don’t have time for our leaders to be fighting with each other,” he said.
Twitter: @DavidZahniser
Twitter: @csaillant2