Los Angeles City Hall is entering a historic chapter with the swearing in of Karen Bass as mayor on Sunday and four new councilmembers taking their seats, but a whirlwind of fresh chaos is darkening the moment, leaving longtime observers to question how a new city council will get work done amid an unprecedented and “dangerous” spectacle.
The City Council has struggled to function for months as protesters disrupt meetings, demanding the resignation of Councilmember Kevin de León in response to a stunning audio recording leaked in October. In the audio, de León, then Council President Nury Martinez and then councilmember Gil Cedillo are engaged in a private conversation laced with racist and crude language.
The revelation roiled fellow councilmembers and the public for weeks, at moments shutting down council business altogether.
But just as the fervor and intense rhetoric of election season appeared to be settling, came a chaotic Friday like never before at L.A. City Hall.
De León returned to Council chambers for the first time since the scandal broke, prompting three councilmembers to walk out. Amid the chaotic scene, outgoing Councilmember Paul Kortez punctuated his farewell speech in Friday’s meeting with an expletive directed toward protestors as he criticized them for impeding the Council’s business.
Then, on Friday evening, the friction between de León and protesters escalated to physical violence at a community holiday event in Lincoln Heights.
According to a statement from the LAPD, an altercation between community member Jason Reedy and de León began when a group of community members, according to the LAPD, blocked de León’s pathway as he was leaving the building.
It culminated in Reedy and de León filing battery reports against each other. LAPD’s Detective Support and Vice Division, Threat Management Unit is investigating the incident and allegations of headbutting, pushing and punching, police said Saturday.
Juggling a refusal to resign, protesters, trust
Now, incoming Mayor Karen Bass and new Councilmembers Traci Park, Tim McOsker, Eunisses Hernandez and Katy Yaroslavksy now face the challenge of beginning work on Monday amidst a historically large scandal, reignited by Friday’s violent alterctaion and the chaos inside City Council chambers on Friday.
They and their fellow councilmembers will have to grapple with de León’s refusal to resign, protesters’ continued disruption at meetings, and the challenge of restoring trust in a City Hall tarred by controversy after controversy.
“I will always respect the right of residents to protest and engage in free speech,” said incoming District 15 Councilmember Tim McOsker in a written statement Saturday. “Those rights need to be protected, and at the same time the ability of the city to carry out vital operations such as City Council meetings must be accommodated.”
“These are difficult issues to balance, but it is clear that violence can never be tolerated as a response to political differences,” he added.
Incoming District 1 Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez said she sees no way forward without de León’s resignation.
“I believe that he needs to resign his position so that the City can move on from this painful period that has left so many community members without the representation and care that they deserve,” she said in written statement Saturday. “We have to be able to get back to the business of serving our people and addressing the many crises impacting Angelenos.
“We cannot do that while he remains in office,” she added.
Outgoing District 15 Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who also supports the call for de León’s resignation, said that because de León has made it clear he is unwilling to resign, the City Council needs to find a way of managing protestors.
“I’m hopeful moving forward that you’re going to see some consequences; that when these disruptors, these anarchists are escorted out and ejected from the council meetings that they’re not welcome back again, because there’s people sitting in the chambers that are there to speak on items that embrace and respect the democratic process,” Buscaino said in a Dec. 10 interview.
District 3 Councilmember Bob Blumenfield said he was looking forward to addressing the critical challenges facing City Hall with the mayor and newly constituted council, calling de León a “distraction from that work.”
“There is no place in our communities for the kind of violence that occurred last night and I am disheartened to see how our public discourse has deteriorated into these hostile interactions,” said Blumenfield in a written statement Saturday.
De León, for his part, released a written statement on Friday evening saying that he, a volunteer and a staff member were assaulted by “self proclaimed activists.”
“The escalating rhetoric is hitting a fever pitch, transcending from verbal threats into actual acts of violence and must end before more serious harm or loss of life occurs,” the statement said. “Violence is not free speech and has no place in politics or democracy.”
‘Right person at the right time’
Bass was unable to provide a fresh comment on the matter, as she was busy preparing for her swearing in ceremony on Dec. 11, her communications representative Zach Seidl said.
But as the leader of America’s second largest city, she could have a key role to play in restoring order in Council’s chambers, and boosting faith in its elected officials.
Jaime Regalado, political science professor emeritus at Cal State Los Angeles, believes former Congresswoman Bass’s credentials make her particularly qualified for this difficult task.
Bass has spent her entire career bridging different racial groups and political factions, he said, both in her early days as a community organizer and during her time in congress.
“You have the right person at the right time,” Regalado said, adding that “she has the power to pull a coalition together on the council and that’s what she’s going to need to govern.”
In an October mayoral debate, Bass said that she would use her experience bridging racial divisions in the wake of the Rodney King riots in the 1990s to address the racial division fueled by the leaked audio.
A unique but ‘dangerous’ moment
Still, the unrivaled political cacophony she inherits is unique in its scope.
Both the length of longevity of protests at City Hall meetings and the physical altercation between a councilmember and a constituent are without recent historical precedent, political experts said.
Former politician Zev Yaroslavsky, who served 19 years on LA City Council and 20 years on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, said he has seen many political scandals in his time, but none that compare to what is currently happening at City Hall.
“I’ve never seen such an effort to shut down the operations of city government,” he said Saturday. “It was dangerous in Washington two years ago. It’s dangerous here too. That’s just not the way a democracy should work.”
Regalado said the violent incident between de León and Reedy is unique in his memory of L.A. city politics.
“It’s even more damning that you have somebody who’s trying to protect a seat, claiming that he’s really representing the people of his district… involved in these kinds of altercations,” he said. “An occasion of fisticuffs in a very public panorama, no I don’t remember anything quite like this.”
Joel Fox, political consultant and professor of state at local policy at Pepperdine University, said that in addition to de León’s resignation, the creation of an independent redistricting committee will be key to rebuilding faith in City Hall.
As it stands, councilmembers oversee the redrawing of council district boundaries in response to census results. In the racially charged audio recording the three implicated councilmembers can be heard strategizing about how to increase latino political representation through redistricting.
In October, Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez introduced a motion to create an independent redistricting commission and the council also voted to begin the process of placing a measure on the 2024 ballot or sooner that would create such a commission.
Fox, Yaroslavsky and Regalado all agreed that the fastest way to bring this chapter of chaos to a close is for de León to resign, but admitted there is little the Council can do to cause this.
De León has already been stripped of his committee positions and on Oct. 26, the Council voted to censure de León and outgoing Councilman Gil Cedillo for their role in the leaked recordings. Nury Martinez, the former council president, and former President of the L.A. County Federation of Labor Ron Herrera, who was also implicated in the scandal, resigned in October.
The only way for de León to be forced to leave office is a successful recall – the process for which is underway — or to be indicted and convicted for a crime, Regalado said.
As long as de León remains in his position, it is likely that the public’s attention will remain fixed on his controversial presence, Fox said, and not on the work of the newly formed Council.