A week after being rocked by public corruption allegations against yet another one of its members, the Los Angeles City Council regrouped Tuesday, electing Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson to serve as its next president pro tempore.
The council’s No. 2 role was previously held by Councilmember Curren Price, who stepped down from the position last week after being charged with perjuring himself by failing to disclose his wife’s business dealings with developers whose projects he voted on, and with embezzling city funds by having his now-wife receive spousal health benefits when they were not legally married.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the vote, Harris-Dawson called the situation facing Price “unsettling.” Harris-Dawson also said the case has left him and others “scratching their heads.”
“It’s just unclear. I’ve not seen a felony charge for this type of activity. I’ve seen ethics violations for this type of activity,” Harris-Dawson said. “So it leaves me curious.”
Ethics Commission cases are handled administratively, with financial penalties issued for those who violate financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws. The district attorney’s office files criminal charges.
News of the criminal filing jolted council members early last week. But as the shock subsided and the details of the case became more widely known, some at City Hall began quietly questioning whether Price’s actions warrant such severe charges.
Harris-Dawson appears to be the first council member to publicly express concerns about the case against Price, which is made up of 10 felony counts: perjury, embezzlement and violations of the state’s conflict-of-interest law. Much of the case focuses on votes cast by Price on affordable housing projects developed by companies that employed Price’s wife as a consultant.
Asked about Harris-Dawson’s comments, a spokesperson for Dist. Atty. George Gascón said the office filed criminal felony charges against Price because “the alleged actions are defined by law as a crime.”
If the D.A.’s office had found that violations of civil law had occurred, but that no crime had been committed, it would have referred the matter to the city’s Ethics Commission or the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said Tiffiny Blacknell, the director of Gascón’s bureau of communications.
Price has previously called the charges “unwarranted” but has not provided a more vigorous rebuttal. Harris-Dawson is also a member of the council’s rules committee, which is scheduled to take up a proposal to suspend Price on Friday.
Harris-Dawson declined to say whether he thinks Price should be suspended.
Tuesday’s pro tempore election was conducted with little fanfare. After the council unanimously approved more than 20 matters before them with a single vote, council President Paul Krekorian’s face lit up as he asked the clerk to clarify that the pro tempore vote was included in the list.
“With that vote, I’m pleased to congratulate our council President Pro Tem Marqueece Harris-Dawson,” Krekorian said soon after, as Harris-Dawson smiled and raised his clasped hands with a slight bow. “I’d like to ask you to come on up and take the desk.”
After walking up to the raised dais where the council president sits, Harris-Dawson spent the next 20 minutes presiding over the meeting. It’s a role he will now fill whenever Krekorian is absent.
Krekorian had initially put Harris-Dawson’s name forth for the role last week and was not met with any public opposition on the council.
The shakeup will not dramatically alter the council, but it does put Harris-Dawson in a prime position for further political ascent. The South Los Angeles council member and former community organizer has been eyeing the council presidency, which will be vacant again late next year when Krekorian terms out.
Harris-Dawson is also particularly close to Mayor Karen Bass. He ran Community Coalition, the progressive South L.A. nonprofit organization that Bass founded, before joining the council. Harris-Dawson’s former chief of staff, Solomon Rivera, recently left the council office to join the mayor’s administration.
He represents the 8th District, which is considered the heart of L.A.’s Black community. Along with Price, Harris-Dawson is one of only two elected Black members on the council. (A third member, Heather Hutt, was appointed by the council to fill former Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas’ seat.)
Although the president pro tempore is elected by his or her peers, rather than directly chosen by the council president, he or she is still part of the council president’s leadership team. The pro tem can “provide critical strength for a leadership coalition in the council,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, which sponsors social science research on Los Angeles.
Harris-Dawson leans politically to the left of Krekorian and has strong relationships with the council’s most progressive members. Those connections could be a boon to Krekorian as the council president seeks to corral votes.