Progressives gain influence on new-look City Council

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — After labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez came in first place in the June primary, besting two-term incumbent Councilman Mitch O’Farrell by nearly 9 percentage points, he began fielding calls from people he didn’t know.

“All of a sudden, we made a lot of friends,” Soto-Martinez recalled to City News Service. “A lot of friends that were not part of our coalition — business interests, folks like that.”

Soto-Martinez, now a councilman-elect after beating O’Farrell again in the runoff election Nov. 8, said he was surprised at the “prestige” by which some view his council seat.

“I try to lead with a lot of humility, make it not about myself,” Soto-Martinez said. “You’re just a public servant. It’s not glamorous.”

Soto-Martinez and another progressive councilmember-elect, Eunisses Hernandez, are set to take office December. Their additions could create a progressive block on the council that may also include Council members Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Nithya Raman. In the city controller’s race, Kenneth Mejia, an activist and tax accountant, beat three-term Councilman Paul Koretz.

A special election next April to fill Nury Martinez’s former seat and a potential recall of Councilman Kevin de León could provide more opportunities for a leftward shift on the council. The 10th District seat — temporarily being held by Heather Hutt until a decision in the trial of suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas — could also open up.

It wasn’t a clean progressive sweep. Councilman Mike Bonin — a progressive stalwart on the council — will be replaced by a more centrist Democrat in Traci Park, who beat the more progressive Erin Darling. Tim McOsker, a City Hall veteran, defeated community activist and entrepreneur Danielle Sandoval in the 15th District City Council seat.

In the city attorney’s race, the moderate candidate Hydee Feldstein Soto defeated Faisal Gill, who ran on a more progressive platform.

But they did enough to make a tangible impact, including making the runoff in the first place, according to Fernando Guerra, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.

“The progressive movement is here and here to stay,” Guerra told City News Service. “It’s just whether it will manifest itself in this election or in the next two or three, but progressives are a force to be reckoned with for the future of L.A. politics.”

In defeating O’Farrell, Soto-Martinez became the third challenger to unseat an incumbent council member in as many years — following Hernandez and Raman. Prior to Raman’s win over David Ryu in 2020, a challenger had not beaten an incumbent in 17 years.

“After the victory of Councilmember Raman, what we saw was a very clear shift in the way politics is done in the city,” Soto-Martinez said. “It gave folks a belief that they could actually win — that the public, the people we represent were actually desiring something very different than current city politics.”

Soto-Martinez believes that progressive candidates have “given the general public someone to feel hopeful for, someone who they can trust and get behind.”

“But I do think the public was already there,” he said. “I think the public was way more progressive than the current elected officials.”

Soto-Martinez and Hernandez take their seats at a time in which City Hall is reeling from a scandal sparked by leaked tapes in October in which three council members made racist comments and attempted to manipulate redistricting.

One of them, Councilman Gil Cedillo, will cede his seat to Hernandez — a community organizer who won outright in the June primary.

“I believe that these tapes have set us free,” Hernandez told City News Service.

Hernandez described policies such as the expansion of the 41.18 ordinance — which now bans encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers — as having roots that are very much racist.”

“I really look forward to being able to use the seat on the City Council to make sure that policies like that — that disproportionately impact certain communities — are not passed,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said she was excited to work with the makeup of the council regardless of the number of progressives. But she believes this is a moment that the council cannot allow to slip by — especially around redistricting reforms, referencing Raman’s markedly different district after last year’s redistricting.

“They said they wanted to put Nithya’s district in a blender and they did that,” Hernandez said, referring to the council members on the leaked tape. “They destroyed her district. She’s having to canvas just to meet the people there.”

The council will be bound for an adjustment amid continued uncertainty. A quarter of the seats will change over on Dec. 12 with more potentially to come, and de León’s continued refusal to resign is expected to loom over the new council.

By rule, the council will also hold a vote after the new members are sworn in for a council president on Dec. 13, after just electing Paul Krekorian to the role following Nury Martinez’s resignation. Harris-Dawson told Spectrum News last week that he was interested in the position, but he later clarified to the Los Angeles Times that he was “not planning to challenge Krekorian in December.” Krekorian has two years remaining on his final term on the council.

Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC, offered caution about how much wholesale changes the council would make. Reelection, maintaining ties and keeping influential channels are still top concerns for politicians, she said.

“The biggest predictor coming out of any type of political scandal is that everybody’s trying to figure out how to still maintain the status quo as much as possible,” Romero told City News Service. “You don’t want to totally reset the game, because — unless the current players feel like they’re going to have an even better advantage — usually the current players don’t want to reset the game.”

The council has begun looking at proposals to create an independent redistricting commission and expand the council’s size, but Romero said that even under the best intentions, council members are “still going to be looking to figure out how they can keep their seat.”

Romero said a progressive block of five or six members will need to compromise in a council of 15.

Soto-Martinez views the ideological differences as a negotiation that progressives are more favorable to win as their influence grows. He plans to be aggressive on policies concerning the unhoused community and building affordable housing.

“If you have four or five operating as a progressive block, it’s going to change the negotiating power,” Soto-Martinez said. “At that point, it’s going to be our responsibility to push as far as we can.”


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