Will LA City Council fiasco lead to redistricting reform?

Politics and government
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By Emily Hoeven 
CalMatters Writer 

Racism, redistricting and resignation. 

Those were the three R-words that rocked the California political world this week, as everyone from Gov. Gavin Newsom to U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla to statewide candidates in the Nov. 8 election weighed in on a leaked 2021 recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times in which three Los Angeles City Council members and an influential local labor leader made racist comments, mocked their colleagues and plotted how to consolidate political power in the city’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process. 

Amid fallout from the recording — in which then-City Council President Nury Martinez can be heard insulting Black, indigenous, LGBTQ and white people and appearing to threaten the young Black adopted son of a white gay council member — Martinez stepped down Monday morning from her leadership position, but not from the council itself, then officially resigned her council position on Wednesday. 

Martinez said in a statement: “I take responsibility for what I said and there are no excuses for those comments. I’m so sorry. …. As someone who believes deeply in the empowerment of communities of color, I recognize my comments undercut that goal.” 

Many California leaders weighed in on the issue, including Padilla, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, state lawmakers representing Los Angeles, Legislative Diversity Caucus leaders, California Democratic Party officials and prominent organized labor groups. 

They called on Martinez — along with City Council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera — to immediately resign from their posts. Herrera stepped down Monday night. Tuesday, an hour before a City Council meeting, Martinez announced she was taking a leave of absence, then resigned the next day. 

Newsom said in a statement: “These comments have no place in our state, or in our politics, and we must all model better behavior to live the values that so many of us fight every day to protect.” 

The four officials have apologized for their role in the conversation, which the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said was recorded at its offices amid a “serious security and privacy breach” that resulted in “illegal” recordings of “many private and confidential conversations,” according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Meanwhile, the explosive recording has refocused attention on redistricting in California. In the recording, the officials expressed concern about Los Angeles’ City Council districts being redrawn last year to benefit Black residents while disenfranchising Latinos. The remarks, which were peppered with racist commentary, reveal “a sort of concerted effort to dilute the strength of Black voters,” Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who is Black, told the Times. 

At the state level, an independent commission is charged with the politically perilous task of redrawing the boundaries of legislative, congressional and board of equalization districts every 10 years after the U.S. Census to reflect population shifts and protect “communities of interest” — a term that encompasses both racial and ethnic groups and those formed around shared environmental, economic concerns or social concerns.  

The landscape is different at the local level, where lines are drawn for county supervisor, city council and school board districts, among others. About 17.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million residents live in a city or county with an independent redistricting commission, according to one estimate. In other areas, local politicians lead the process — and tend to draw lines benefiting themselves and their party. 

To address those concerns, Newsom recently signed bills to create independent redistricting commissions in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties. However, CalMatters columnist Dan Walters argued Monday they simply “create gerrymanders of a different kind.” 

In the city of Los Angeles, a commission appointed by elected officials is tasked with recommending new district lines to the City Council, which has the final say over the maps — a system the Los Angeles Times editorial board described as “fundamentally flawed in ways that erode public trust and discourage civic participation.” 

For California Common Cause, an advocacy group that pushed for the state’s independent redistricting commission, the leaked tapes demonstrate the need for a similar approach at all levels of government — and serve as a call to action for state lawmakers. 

Jonathan Mehta Stein, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement: “The manipulation of district lines to serve those in power, at the expense of regular people and communities of color, is not unique to Los Angeles. It occurred across many California cities, counties, and school boards during the most recent redistricting cycle. And it will continue if the state Legislature does not take action to put an end to these sorts of democratic abuses through widespread reform of our local redistricting systems.” 

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