By ERIC HE
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to oppose state legislation that would reform the city’s redistricting process, with embattled Councilman Kevin de León taking part in the discussion that turned into a tense back-and-forth with a colleague.
De León’s participation in a leaked, racist conversation in which he, two former council members and a top county labor official discussed how they could manipulate the 2021 redistricting process reignited calls for reform.
The council voted 11-2, with de León and Monica Rodriguez dissenting, to oppose Senate Bill 52 and support the city council’s own reform efforts.
“It would be irresponsible to this body to say the state Legislature should decide this,” Council President Paul Krekorian said. “This is this body’s responsibility. And whatever we do, we will be doing before the voters to be approved by the people of Los Angeles with a charter reform that cannot be changed by this City Council.”
De León, in his initial remarks, did not acknowledge his role in the leaked conversation but called for the council to work with the state Legislature on redistricting reform. His comments were met with immediate condemnation by at least two of his colleagues — Hugo Soto-Martinez, who addressed de León directly, and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who paced around the council floor while de León was speaking and tweeted simply: “GALL.”
Soto-Martinez said he wanted to “speak on behalf of 99% of the people in this room.”
“You truly have no shame, Kevin de León,” Soto-Martinez said. “To come here and speak on this subject, the very subject that you had your hands in, is beyond me. Is this a Hollywood movie that I’m watching right now?”
Soto-Martinez then called de León “un sinvergüenza, like totalmente” — Spanish for “a total scoundrel.”
De León responded by saying he would “address the elephant in the room” and added he was glad Soto-Martinez brought up the leaked audio. He proceeded to claim that the result of the 2021 redistricting process was not manipulated based on how the districts were eventually drawn, blaming the “political propaganda agenda.”
De León is the only official who took part in the conversation remaining in office, and has not resigned despite widespread calls to do so. Former Council President Nury Martinez and former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Ron Herrera both resigned, and former Councilman Gil Cedillo had already lost a re-election bid.
In a terse pushback, de León then told Soto-Martinez that he should “know what you say, my friend, before you say it.”
Harris-Dawson then called for a vote “right away, as my cup runneth over.”
Senate Bill 52, currently waiting to be heard by a committee, was amended this week to require all charter cities with a population of at least 2.5 million people to establish a citizens redistricting commission, removing some specific references to Los Angeles. The amendments also included eliminating a set number of commissioners, instead calling for the total number of members to be nine more than the number of council districts. That would accommodate any potential council expansion efforts in Los Angeles.
The bill’s author, state Sen. Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, wrote a harsh letter to the city council on Tuesday defending her legislation and claiming that Krekorian and Councilwoman Nithya Raman’s proposal on redistricting had “no debate or analysis before a committee.” Durazo said neither council member has expressed interest in communicating with her.
“If they had, I would gladly share the amendments we were planning after consultation with legal experts,” Durazo wrote. “Shamefully, they did not, and what was presented to you is now an older version of the bill.”
Even if SB 52 is passed, it is unclear whether it would immediately apply to the city of Los Angeles because the redistricting process is defined in the city charter — which can only be amended via an election.
But Durazo attached a letter from Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley Law School and a constitutional scholar, who said SB 52 “involves a matter of statewide concern” and is constitutional.
Chemerinsky said elections have generally been local affairs, but that the state can step in when the legislation is of “statewide concern.” The California Supreme Court’s four-part test for the validity of state laws regulating charter cities includes “whether the law is narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference with local governance,” according to Chemerinsky.
Krekorian, in remarks during Wednesday’s meeting, called it “inappropriate for the state Legislature to meddle in the election affairs of a chartered city.”
“We have a city charter, which the people of Los Angeles have enacted,” Krekorian said. “And that governs our elections and that governs what we do. Not the whims of politicians in Sacramento.”
Following the leaked audio, the council created an Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform — chaired by Krekorian — that aims to create an independent redistricting commission among addressing other systemic reforms.
Last October, the council voted to begin the process of placing a measure on the 2024 ballot or sooner that would create an independent redistricting commission. Under the current redistricting process created in 1999, council members appoint representatives to a 21-member redistricting commission, which meets every 10 years to redraw council district boundaries. The panel’s recommended lines, however, are then submitted to the city council, which makes the final determinations.
In 2016, Senate Bill 958 created a citizen’s redistricting commission for Los Angeles County independent from the influence of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
John Wickham, assistant chief legislative analyst, told the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform last week that the office was preparing a detailed report on the process of creating an independent redistricting commission. He said the council would have to consider several key issues, including the length and term of the commission, the number of commissioners, how much independence the commission would have and how to integrate the potential expansion of the council with changes in the redistricting process.
Councilman Tim McOsker, who worked on the city’s last charter reform when he was chief of staff under Mayor James Hahn more than 20 years ago, said he liked SB 52 but felt it was important to “stick up for the provisions of the charter.”
“All that being said, we need to move,” McOsker said. “We need to get on this.”