Essential Politics: What is going on at Los Angeles City hall?

A view of Los Angeles City Hall on Oct. 10.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

L.A.’s political power structure is on fire.

Earlier this week, The Times published an audio recording where the then-City Council President made racist remarks during an October 2021 meeting about redistricting. The conversation among Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera and Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo has shocked much of the city and led to calls for their resignations. Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Sen. Alex Padilla, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and mayoral candidates Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and billionaire developer Rick Caruso have all said the council members should resign. On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Joe Biden said that the president agrees.

For the record:

11:26 a.m. Oct. 12, 2022An earlier version of a photo caption incorrectly identified a protester as Earl Ofari Hutchinson. The man is Greg Akili.

This week, we are going to look west and chat with City Hall reporter Julia Wick about what’s happened and the potential consequences for upcoming elections.

Erin Logan: Julia, what’s going on at City Hall?

Julia Wick: A leaked recording reported on Sunday morning by The Times has had explosive reverberations in the city. The roughly year-old conversation largely focused on the city’s once-every-decade redistricting process.

Much of the naked racism on the tape came from then-City Council President Nury Martinez describing a white councilmember’s young Black son as a “changuito,” or little monkey, and suggested the boy deserved a “beat down.” That horrified Angelenos. Martinez’s openly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racist remarks occurred while other participants — Councilmen Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera laughed and occasionally chimed in. It feels like an open wound in the city right now. People are shocked by how our leaders speak behind closed doors, and are deeply, deeply upset.


EL: What have the repercussions looked like so far?

JW: Martinez stepped down as council president Monday morning. On Tuesday morning, she announced that she was taking a leave of absence, but she remains on the council as of Tuesday afternoon. Calls for all three councilmembers to resign have grown deafening, with many of their closest political allies demanding that they step down. The council had their first meeting since the leak on Tuesday morning, where anger boiled over and dozens of people lined up to ask Cedillo, De León and Martinez to resign.

Councilmember Mike Bonin, whose young Black son was derided by Martinez, gave an emotional speech at the beginning of the meeting where he said, the words “cut and they stung.”

As a white father, Bonin said, “I can never really know or comprehend or feel the weight of the daily relentless racism, anti-Black racism that my son is gonna face.

“But man, I know the fire you feel when someone tries to destroy Black boy joy. Man, it’s a rage.”

There is no precedent in recent L.A. political history for such upheaval.

EL: Julia, can you talk about the reaction from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor? Why were they even in the room to begin with?

JW: The Fed has an enormous amount of political power in Los Angeles. They are very closely aligned with a number of politicians and they pour big money into city races. This has been like a bomb going off at City Hall and I think it’s had similar repercussions both in the labor community and at the federation, which is the umbrella organization for a large group of unions. I think people have been really, really shaken by what’s on the tape. Ron Herrera, president of the Federation, which is a very influential position in Los Angeles, resigned last night. It’s not yet clear who will replace him.


EL: In an earlier version of the first story we published about the recording, it seemed as if the federation was trying to stop The Times from publishing the story.

JW: Yes, so anytime we publish a story, we would go out to the parties involved and ask for comment. And with this story, we went out to everyone who was on that tape, including Ron. We got a letter back from the federation’s lawyer, saying the conversation was “recorded in violation of California and privacy and recording laws on Los Angeles County Federation property.” And basically, saying that if we publish the information, it would be condoning this illegal conduct.

California is a two-party consent state, which means that it’s illegal to record a conversation unless everyone consents. That’s not the case in a lot of states, but it is in California. The thing is though, on the journalist side, that doesn’t really matter. There’s a large body of legal precedent that says that journalists can move forward with the publication of newsworthy leaked audio, even if it was secretly recorded.

EL: Do we know who recorded the audio? How do we know the location where the conversation took place? Why it took one year to leak?

JW: That’s a great question. This is an area where I’m sorry to say we still have a lot more questions than answers.

What we know is that the audio was recorded at the Fed last October. We have a pretty good sense of the date because of [them] referring to Councilmember Mark Ridley Thomas’ arraignment being on Wednesday. So we know it was within a week of that. And they’re talking about things in the redistricting process that we know happen on certain days. There was a point in the conversation where then-Council President Nury Martinez appears to answer her phone and say something like, ‘I’m at the Fed.’ The federation’s lawyers’ letters to us confirmed the conversation took place on their property.

What we don’t know is whether anyone else was in the room with them and who recorded the tape. It appears to be part of a larger set of leaks that happened at the Fed.

EL: Larger leaks? Can you talk more about that?

JW: Yes, all the leaks came from a Reddit user who had their account suspended. It has since been restored. But they had a couple of other postings that were also leaks. Those are much harder to hear, but they appear to be conversations that took place at the Fed. It’s possible that these council members were not at all the target of this. But the timing is pretty pivotal with elections in about a month. Talk about an October surprise.

EL: Ah, yes. The election. Could this leak influence down-ballot races?

I think this will play into down-ballot races but it’s too soon to say exactly how. The Fed has endorsed a number of candidates and put quite a bit of money into races of this election cycle. But they’re such a staple in the Los Angeles political ecosystem and I don’t think that suddenly people are going to be backing away from Federation-endorsed candidates.

EL: Could this influence the mayor’s race?

JW: It’s really hard to say. This is a massive, massive scandal and we’re still at the tip of the iceberg of how this is going to unfold. I feel certain that it will have an impact on the mayor’s race. But I don’t yet know what that impact will look like.

EL: Could it look like either voters backing candidate Karen Bass, who is Black, to show solidarity with her and their distaste for the racist remarks? Or could voters want to get rid of the current L.A. political power structure, which Bass is part of, and back candidate Rick Caruso, who has recently emerged on the political scene?

JW: Yes, that could be the main way it could cut. But politics are rarely binary. It’s very possible it will play both of those ways and also six other ways that I can’t yet imagine because it will be in reaction to things that haven’t happened yet.

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More on the scandal at City Hall

— A week before the news broke, Martinez spoke to The Times about her ascent as the first Latina to become City Council president. Her career had personified the gains in political representation that Latinos made in Los Angeles. But Times writers Ben Oreskes and Emily Alpert Reyes write that she has been known as a blunt and forthright speaker — a quality that has now sent her into political free fall.

— Martinez said Tuesday she would take a leave of absence from the City Council, Times writer Dakota Smith reported. Demands for her resignation came Monday from Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, Sen. Alex Padilla, numerous members of the City Council and President Biden.

— Herrera offered his resignation at a Monday night meeting with the federation’s executive board, which accepted, according to two sources close to the situation, Times writers Matt Pearce, Anousha Sakoui and Margot Roosevelt reported. Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation and former head of the AFL-CIO’s San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, confirmed to The Times that Herrera offered his resignation to the board. “We are focused on rebuilding solidarity and trust in the worker movement,” she said.

The latest from the campaign trail

Young voters are often misperceived as too apathetic or too self-absorbed to care about elections. But rather than being dismissive of politics, some of the country’s least experienced voters say they feel unprepared to make such weighty choices, Times reporter Priscella Vega reported. A sense of paralysis is a key, but underappreciated, dynamic among this crucial voting bloc of 18- to 29-year-olds, whom politicians tend to court with cringeworthy social media stunts. It’s a sentiment pollsters pick up time and again. Young voters often say they didn’t have enough information or campaigns didn’t contact them, experts say.

—A month before election day and getting name recognition remains a daunting task for Brian Dahle, a state senator and seed farmer from the town of Bieber, population 266 or so, who is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the nation’s most populous state, Times writer Hailey Branson-Potts reported. Dahle’s family-run campaign has raised just more than $2 million. Newsom, as of late September, sat on a reelection campaign fund with more than $23 million on hand. Polls show a Dahle victory would take divine intervention in this liberal state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. Newsom has the backing of 53% of likely California voters, compared with 32% who favor Dahle, according to a poll released this month.

—In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Black voters are at the center of an increasingly competitive battle in a race that could tilt control of the Senate, as Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and his party try to harness outrage over the Supreme Court‘s abortion decision and Republicans tap the national playbook to focus on crime in cities, the Associated Press reported. They are perhaps the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters. About nine in 10 Black voters nationally went for Joe Biden in 2020, according to a survey. In Pennsylvania, the support was similar, at 94%. There’s no evidence of a looming mass defection to Republicans like Dr. Mehmet Oz . But if he can peel off even a small share — or a critical mass of Black voters choose not to vote — it might prove consequential in a race that polls show as close. In Philadelphia, where Black voters are the largest bloc in the swing state’s biggest Democratic bastion, some activists question Democrats’ outreach and fret about turnout.

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The view from Washington

— Biden is scheduled to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday for a series of appearances in Southern California, including a fundraiser with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and to give “remarks on the historic investments in our nation’s infrastructure.” But Nathan Solis also reports that the timing of Biden’s visit comes amid controversy at L.A. City Hall, and he may have to address the situation.

— The U.S. Department of Labor has published a new proposal on how workers should be classified, saying that thousands of people have been incorrectly labeled as contractors rather than employees, potentially curtailing access to benefits and protections they deserve, the Associated Press reported. Misclassifying workers as independent contractors denies those workers protections under federal labor standards, promotes wage theft, allows certain employers to gain an unfair advantage over businesses, and hurts the economy, the department said Tuesday. The reaction in markets for major gig companies was immediate. Shares of Lyft and Uber tumbled about 13% in early trading.

— The Department of Justice urged the Supreme Court in a filing Tuesday not to weigh in on an ongoing fight with former President Trump over classified documents, arguing that Trump “has not even attempted to explain” how he is harmed by an appellate court decision not to allow a special master to review classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said in the filing that the underlying dispute involves an “unprecedented” attempt to restrict the government’s use of its own “extraordinarily sensitive” classified documents. Last week, Trump asked the Supreme Court to intervene and allow a special master to examine roughly 100 classified records found during the court-approved search of his Florida home in early August. The Justice Department is investigating alleged retention of classified information, theft of government documents and obstruction of justice.

— Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii announced on Tuesday she is leaving the Democratic Party, saying it is under “complete control of an elitist cabal” and urging “fellow common sense independent-minded Democrats” to leave the party with her, Times writer Alexandra E. Petri reported. Gabbard was elected to Congress in 2012 and sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. She was one of the three final candidates and the only woman left before dropping out in March 2020 and announcing she would back Biden.

— Leaders from many of the Western Hemisphere’s nations attempted Thursday to tackle the region’s most intractable problems, including the deterioration of democracy and the displacement of millions of people, but they found few solutions, Times writer Tracy Wilkinson reported. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, leading the U.S. delegation of the 52nd summit of the Organization of American States, announced that the Biden administration is giving $240 million to Latin American countries that have been hit hardest by the forced migration of Venezuelans and Colombians.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced he is calling a special legislative session in December for lawmakers to consider passing a tax on excessive profits oil companies are making because of the increase in California gas prices, Times writer Phil Willon reported. Newsom said he is working with the leadership of the Democratic-controlled Legislature to determine the best way to tax the profits and return that money to Californians getting stung every time they fill up their gas tanks. Unlike the nationwide increase in gasoline costs over the summer — driven by high oil prices and a surge in travel — the recent spike is unique to California and some of its Western neighbors, underscoring the fragility of the state’s transitioning energy markets.

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