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In City Council election, candidates seek to bury the memory of the audio leak that shook LA City Hall

The race pits two Latina candidates in their mid-30s, one a longtime city council staffer, the other a community activist.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — In the coming weeks, thousands of Los Angeles residents living the northeastern-most part of the city will vote for their next city councilmember.

City Hall is not particularly popular these days. In the last two and a half years, two city councilmen have pleaded guilty to federal felony charges, while a third was convicted of bribery in March. And last year, the city's political establishment was rocked by the leak of an hour-long audio recording in which then-City Council President Nury Martinez and two other council members could be heard insulting a large swath of the city using crass and profane language that at times crossed over into racism and homophobia.

Martinez resigned shortly after the audio leak. Another politician heard on the recording, Kevin de Leon, did not. His refusal to do so led to weeks of angry protests which intermittently shut down council proceedings.

But City Hall is trying move on. There is a new mayor, Karen Bass, who has impressed many with her urgent approach to tackling the homelessness crisis. The seat of Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was recently convicted, is being held by a caretaker, appointed by the rest of the council. And Martinez will be replaced soon by the special election, which heads to runoff on June 27, though mail-in ballots have already gone out.

The race pits longtime city council staffer Marisa Alcaraz against Imelda Padilla, a community activist who's worked for nonprofits and sat on the neighborhood council. They both grew up in Council District 6, which covers most of the East San Fernando Valley. It is a heavily Latino area, with many Spanish-speaking and low-income residents, with some of the lowest levels of voter participation in the city.

Martinez and the legacy of her infamous audio tape hangs over the race like a pall. It was the first topic discussed at a recent debate held on Wednesday night. Padilla said that when she heard the recording she was "angry, very sad, very embarrassed and very disappointed," so much so that she had to take a week off of work. Alcaraz too said she was "surprised and saddened" by what she heard, though she was quick to point out that Padilla once worked for Martinez — as a field deputy, during Martinez's first 18 month in office, some ten years ago.

"I have never worked for Nury Martinez or anyone from her political machine," Alcaraz said, "unlike my opponent."

But if the attack on Padilla is her affiliation with Martinez, the attack on Alcaraz is that she is a "City Hall insider," a veritable epithet following the succession of scandals. Alcaraz has been a city council staffer for nearly 15 years, most recently as deputy chief of staff to Councilman Curren Price, who represents a district in south LA and desires to be the next city council president. Some see the race as a proxy battle between Price and another councilmember, Monica Rodriguez, who supports Padilla.

"I believe voters are choosing between someone who is able to, with ease, talk about what the issues and assets are in this district," Padilla said in an interview last week. "Versus someone who has spent their entire time at City Hall, and is is sort of intertwined with the culture of City Hall and has been for too long."

Alcaraz bristles at the "insider" label.

"I don't consider myself a City Hall insider," said Alcaraz, in a phone interview last week. "I've done work out of the district offices before I've done work in in City Hall. I always saw myself as someone who was there to make change, though. That's why I've been working on a lot of these progressive policies."


At the recent debate, the first and possibly the last of the runoff election, the two Latina candidates, both in their mid-30s, sat two feet away at a folding table atop a stage inside a banquet hall. They stared straight ahead, their eyes never meeting. They did not shake hands.

Some recent city elections have seen sharp disagreement over the two most contentious issues of the day — crime and homelessness. Not so with this one. Padilla and Alcaraz largely agree on most policies. Both would like to see homeless encampments cleaned up — particularly the clusters of RVs parked on streets in their district. Both think Mayor Bass is off to a good start in her efforts to fight homelessness. And both say that they would use a fairly new law, dubbed "41.18," that allows council members to ban homeless encampments in certain areas near schools, parks, playgrounds and libraries — though both say they would use the tactic sparingly as a last resort.

Both are in favor of expanding the size of city council. Both are broadly in favor of more policing, though Alcaraz wants to hire a few hundred more officers, while Padilla simply wants to shift those doing support work to active patrol.

The debate did reveal one surprising area of disagreement. Alcaraz said she wants to cut back on a council member's ability to block and approve housing construction, in an effort to make construction easier (and hopefully cheaper) as well as to cut down on city hall corruption. It's a position that is not a popular one at City Hall, and not one Padilla agrees with.

The job of city council member is, in some ways, two jobs in one. Each council member represents about 270,000 people, enough to fill a small city like Reno, and each one acts as a sort of city manager of their district. Their office fields calls to fix potholes, clean up homeless encampments and haul away junk. Residents plead for the officials to install crosswalks, assign police officers to certain areas, clean up parks, tell construction crews to keep it down early in the morning. City Council offices have broad discretion about what types of work to prioritize.

Council members are also the city's legislative body. The 15 members author and approve citywide policies that affect everyone.

"Politically, they are very similar," said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, a business group. "The difference will be in their approach. Without a doubt, Imelda will be more hands on in the district, picking up trash, making sure things are getting clean, working diligently. Marissa will spend most of her time working on policy."

During the primary, Padilla finished in first place with just 3,424 votes, while 2,821 votes were enough for Alcaraz to finish in second. Turnout in the runoff is expected to be similarly anemic — likely around 10%, give or take — largely because the election isn't citywide and is the only thing on the ballot.

"You’re talking about less than five percent of the district’s adults," said Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra. And considering the power incumbency has in most local races, the election could well determine who will be a council member for the next 14 years. "That’s not an ideal democracy at work."

It's worth noting that Martinez herself was first elected to the council, in 2013, via a special election. In the runoff, she received just under 5,500 votes.

With those kinds of small numbers, anything is possible, and any small factor can shape a race. Armenians turned out in surprisingly large numbers during the primary to support Armenian candidate Rose Grigoryan. She's endorsed Padilla, but it's unclear how many voters that will be worth.

Alcaraz, meanwhile, can boast the support of the LA County Federation of Labor, the powerful labor organization, the office of which where the now-infamous audio recording took place.

Whoever wins, they won't be able to enjoy their victory for long. They'll have to run for reelection in March 2024 — less than nine months after they're elected.

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Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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