In Los Angeles, politics prove more complex than a racist conversation

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In Los Angeles, politics prove more complex than a racist conversation
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Once synonymous with Black culture, South Los Angeles has undergone a dramatic demographic shift.

There is Catholic Mass in Spanish at the theater where Duke Ellington once headlined. In the halls of Thomas Jefferson High School, whose famous Black alumni include Alvin Ailey and Dexter Gordon, roughly 9 in 10 students are Hispanic. On historic Central Avenue, ranchera music blares from the grocery stores.

But in the city’s 9th District, which encompasses the stretch of Los Angeles once known as South Central, one element hasn’t changed: Voters have chosen Black candidates to be City Council members for nearly six decades, including their current councilman, Curren Price.

On a leaked recording that has upended Los Angeles politics this month, four Latino leaders were heard discussing how to redraw political districts to their benefit, using racist terms and disparaging words that were widely condemned. The audio also exposed frustrations that there weren’t more Latinos in elected office, at a time when they comprise half the city’s population.

Decades of political decisions and deals have resulted in the current composition of the City Council, where white and Black leaders hold more seats than demographics might suggest. The release of the recording also has opened a debate over how much the racial bloc politics of prior generations still matter.

Voter participation in the 9th District is low, and some residents said that they pay little attention to city politics, despite their daily concerns with crime and homelessness. Hustling her 8-year-old son home from school in South Los Angeles, Maria Robles, 30, wondered what local politicians would do to solve problems.

Curren Price, who has represented the Ninth District on the Los Angeles City Council since 2013, outside City Hall. (Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times)

“I don’t vote — I just don’t,” she said. “I don’t believe any politicians are really representing Latinos. They’re not standing up for us.”

In the city’s political circles, however, the gap between the Latino population and its level of clout has been a long-standing issue. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 9th District, where 80% of residents now are Latino.

“People feel uncomfortable talking about this, but Latinos in LA are underrepresented,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. He regularly conducts surveys and focus groups of city residents, and he said that “when we talk to Latinos in those communities, they would like Latino representation.”

In the 1980s, increasing numbers of Latino immigrants moved into South Los Angeles, fleeing Central American civil wars and Mexican economic disruption. At the same time, manufacturing jobs were disappearing, gang violence and drugs were proliferating and the Black middle class was moving elsewhere. By 1990, according to census data analyzed by SocialExplorer.com, for the first time more than half of the area’s residents were Latino.

Political representation often trails demographic change, and Los Angeles has been no exception. In some cases, Latino leaders struck mutually beneficial deals to preserve district boundaries that protected Black colleagues. In others, the heavily Latino labor movement in Los Angeles has backed reliable Black incumbents over Latino challengers who were unproven and unfamiliar. Union members provide the volunteer and financial support necessary to turn out voters in local elections in which participation might otherwise be lackluster in a big, transient city.

Latino residents now comprise the largest ethnic group in 10 of the city’s 15 council districts, according to city data. But their share of the eligible voting population is smaller than their share of the overall population, a gap that reduces their electoral power.

Even before Nury Martinez, a Latina Democrat, resigned as City Council president and gave up her council seat last week because of the uproar over the audio recording, only four of the 15 council seats were held by Latinos.

The damaging conversation has had the unintended effect of reducing Latino power, at least temporarily. Martinez was replaced as president Tuesday by Paul Krekorian, an Armenian American. The other two council members on the recording, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, have been stripped of their committee assignments and have not attended meetings for a week.

The 9th District was considered a Latino seat in the 1950s, when Edward R. Roybal became the city’s first Latino councilman since the late 1800s. When Roybal went to Congress in 1962, Gilbert W. Lindsay, a Black community organizer with strong labor ties, was appointed to replace him. Lindsay became one of the most powerful politicians in the city, reigning for three decades and dubbing himself “the Emperor of the Great 9th.” All three of his successors on the council have been Black.

When Price, a pro-labor Democrat and former state legislator, first ran for the 9th District seat in 2013, the $1 million or so that he raised in direct campaign contributions was supplemented by some $700,000 that labor groups independently spent on his behalf.

Labor leaders have stuck with Price, to the consternation of challengers who thought the time was ripe for Latino representation.

“I told people I was going to run, and they looked at me like I had COVID,” said Jorge Nuño, 45, a local activist and small-business owner who grew up in the 9th District and lost to Price in the 2017 election. “They said, ‘No, man, don’t do it — the unions are going to stick with Curren.’ ”

Dulce Vasquez, 36, a university administrator and a progressive Democrat who challenged him this year, received more than $500,000 in total support, but it was only about one-third of Price’s war chest, and no match for the union phone banks and precinct walkers who backed him.

Price also was endorsed by all four of his Latino colleagues on the council in his race against Vasquez. He overwhelmingly won his third term in June.

When walking the precincts, however, Nuño and Vasquez each said they encountered a genuine thirst among Latino voters for cultural connection. “People want to see leadership that looks like them,” Nuño said. “They want someone who, like, could go to their living rooms and have pan con café.”

Both predicted that union leaders would back a Latino candidate when Price, 71, leaves office; he is entering his final four-year term under city term-limit rules. In another leaked recording, Ron Herrera, who has since resigned as head of the Labor Federation, referred to that likelihood. When asked about finding a Latino candidate to succeed Price, he said, “We have someone.”

black culture, indian express Maria Robles, 30, and her son Alex Salgado, 8, walk through City Council District Nine. (Lauren Justice/The New York Times)

A Stanford-educated lawyer and native Angeleno who has also served on the Inglewood City Council, Price said the quarter-million or so people who live in the 9th District have kept him in office because he understands their bread-and-butter issues.

Outside his office on Central Avenue last week, a farmers market offered ruby strawberries, jars of honey, cartons of eggs, advice on composting. The councilman said that expanding the market was his idea, to bring produce to a food desert and give people a place to gather and find information about food stamp vouchers and community resources.

Across the street, every day, there is an unofficial market where Latino vendors sell ears of corn, bags of duros, clothing and toys around the parking lot of a discount department store. Strolling along the corridor, Price looked at them and nodded: They are welcome here, too.

He pointed to signposts that feature details in English and Spanish about landmarks from the area’s heyday as a thriving hub for Black Angelenos: The Lincoln Theater at 23rd Street, nicknamed the “West Coast Apollo” in reference to the famous Black entertainment venue in Harlem. The Liberty Savings and Loan Association, a Black-owned business that offered mortgages to local residents when white lenders had shut them out.

“It’s not just for Black people,” Price said about the historical markers. “It’s also for brown people to understand our history.”

The crowning jewel back in the day was the Dunbar Hotel, where greats like Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Ellington stayed at a time when they could draw crowds at Los Angeles performances but were not allowed to stay in white hotels. The Dunbar serves now as affordable housing for seniors.

Outside Price’s earshot, Jose Andrade, a mariachi musician, complained that City Hall had failed to respond to requests to install speed bumps on residential streets to deter street takeovers. “These guys race like they are on the freeway,” he said, “and no one is doing anything about it.”

Born in El Salvador, Andrade said he immigrated with his wife, Iris, to Los Angeles in 1983, and settled in the 9th because they could not afford the rents elsewhere in the city.

“There were gangs at every corner,” he said of those days, as he strolled the aisles of Superior Grocers on Central Avenue, speaking over piped-in Mexican country music. “You lived in fear that you would be assaulted or robbed.”

Black families with means packed up and moved inland to San Bernardino or the Antelope Valley, where the houses were bigger and the streets safer. More immigrants arrived, drawn to lower home prices in the 9th. The economy began to improve, driven by California’s tech boom. Crime rates, for a range of reasons, fell.

By 2000, Andrade had bought a three-bedroom house for $170,000 that was once occupied by a Black family. He planted lemon, avocado and mango trees and built two apartments in the back, which he rents to immigrants. Three of his four adult children have left the neighborhood for college and professional careers.

He became an American citizen a few years ago, and he said he did not vote for Price because he didn’t trust the councilman.

Price acknowledged that meeting his district’s needs has been a work in progress. Of about 100,000 registered voters in the district, only about 12,500 voted in the February primary in which he was elected.

“A lot of times, people say, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve got to work my third job, I don’t have time to go to a meeting, or I don’t have time to call in a complaint, because, you know, nothing’s going to happen anyway,’ ” Price said.

Elmer Roldan, a Guatemalan American, settled in the neighborhood in 1989. He said 9th District residents have long desired more parks and grocery stores, and that he felt that the area of the city near the University of Southern California received disproportionate resources and attention.

Still, Roldan said, the race of his council member has nothing to do with the state of the neighborhood. He said Latino residents should partner with Black Angelenos “who have more in common with us politically and economically.”

“Latinos don’t believe they’re not getting help because Curren Price is Black,” said Roldan, who voted for Price. “They feel that politicians, no matter who they are, they aren’t responsive to the neighborhood.”

“I don’t believe having a Latino council member would change these conditions,” he added.

On Price’s walk back to his office, constituents who flagged down the councilman had plenty to say. A woman selling pozole and fried mojarra outside a storefront offering Zumba classes reported that a street lamp had gone out nearby, and she was worried about safety. Another was worried about a streetlamp on a different block and wanted a traffic signal installed.

They addressed him in Spanish. A spokesperson walking with Price translated for him.





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