Friday, June 14, 2024

2023 Preview: The Political Battle Zones of Los Angeles

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The year 2022 brought Los Angeles a throwdown mayor’s race and a host of other hotly contested electoral battles. The net result was a combative, consequential and downright entertaining political year.

Elections are (mostly) off the table in 2023, but already plenty of potential combat is inked on the calendar. Here is a look at some of the battle zones coming to the political class and the citizenry at large.

Kevin de León Vs. the Recall

The leaked audio scandal of last October shook Los Angeles, and repercussions continued through the end of the year. As the calendar flips, District 14 Council rep Kevin de León remains at the center of things: Foes (and political opportunists) are demanding his resignation for not forcefully confronting then-Council President Nury Martinez when she spewed hateful and racist comments. But the veteran pol has made clear he’s not walking away and intends to continue to serve his Eastside constituents.

While expletives will likely continue to fly during the public comment portion of council meetings, the real battle involves a recall attempt. In December, the City Clerk approved an application to circulate a recall petition, and organizers have until March 31 to get the signatures of 20,437 district voters (that’s 15 percent of all those registered to cast a ballot). Reach that threshold and a recall election will be scheduled. Miss it and de León likely holds his job at least until the regularly scheduled elections in 2024.

A recall is no easy feat. Getting that many valid signatures is expensive and time consuming, and recent attempts to force recall elections for L.A. District Attorney George Gascón and former council rep Mike Bonin both failed. Plus, de León maintains a base of support in the district. Expect the fight to consume at least the first quarter of the year.

Michel Moore Vs. the Activists

On Dec. 27, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore put in his application to serve a second five-year term. A rocket-fast Jan. 10 vote by the civilian Police Commission was delayed after an outcry over the speed of the process. Now comes the grind… though it may not last all that long.

A number of left-leaning activists want Moore out, with many still angry about the department’s tactics during the George Floyd social justice protests of May 2020, and when Echo Park Lake was closed down the following March. It remains unclear who from the LAPD would be an acceptable replacement.

Ultimately, the person with the biggest voice is new Mayor Karen Bass, who can add or remove members of the Police Commission. It is also unclear if she wants to ride with Moore, or install her own chief. If she and Moore are aligned, then he is certain to get a second term, no matter how loud the activists get. But we’re not there… yet.

Good Governance Types Vs. the Status Quo Crowd

Another impact of the audio scandal was a renewed attempt to address some long-running quirks about the local government structure. The revelation of council members nakedly trying to manipulate the redistricting process has prompted calls to remove politicians from future political line-drawing. Additionally, there are discussions about expanding the size of the City Council, as each of the 15 members now represents an unwieldy and absurd 260,000 people.

Council President Paul Krekorian has formed a committee on governance reform to look at these and other measures, and in 2023 the crew will move efforts forward. Ultimately, any change would involve altering the City Charter, which requires a public vote.

It may seem a slam dunk, but there are obstacles, particularly when it comes to growing the council. Unions, business groups and lobbyists would in general prefer to sway fewer people rather than more—it’s less time-consuming and expensive—and they could mount an opposition campaign. Additionally, there is a public aversion to paying for more politicians, especially when L.A. council reps earn almost $230,000 a year. The longer the gap between the scandal and a vote, the harder significant change will be.

José Huizar Vs. the U.S. Department of Justice

Federal investigators and prosecutors have spent years building a case against former District 14 Councilman José Huizar, and in the spring he is finally scheduled to have his days in court. The disgraced ex-pol is alleged to have accepted more than $1.5 million in bribes and kickbacks to real estate interests, and he has been charged using the RICO statute, normally reserved for organized crime figures. Huizar has maintained his innocence; his attorneys assert that while some of his acts to move projects forward may have been distasteful, he has done nothing illegal.

The U.S. Department of Justice has already secured guilty verdicts against a pair of Huizar associates, and this will be the trial of the year. Family members including his brother and estranged wife could testify against him, and the discussion of what transpired in City Hall is sure to make L.A. a national embarrassment. If Huizar is found guilty, he faces decades in prison.

A District 6 Battle Royale

There is yet another repercussion from the audio scandal: Martinez’s resignation means her District 6 council post is empty. A special election to fill it takes place April 4.

Open seats with a short election are a rarity, and political hopefuls are coming out of the proverbial woodwork. Nearly 20 people filed initial paperwork to run, and by the Wednesday deadline 11 people had turned in nominating petitions.

This could ultimately look like a wrestling battle royale, with numerous contestants trying to sell themselves while clubbing their opponents in a contest that will likely have a minuscule number of voters. The rhetoric and the ideology will be intense, particularly as organized progressives see another chance to claim a council seat.

If anyone gets more than 50 percent of the vote, they win instantly, but that is a high bar with a likely cluttered field. More likely is that the top two contenders move on to a runoff, which doesn’t take place until June 27. So, in Los Angeles, we may not be done with elections.

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