Eleven years ago, five powerful women served on the 15-member Los Angeles City Council. Today, there is one — Jan Perry, who is termed out this year. When the new City Council is sworn in on July 1, there may be no women.
Councilman Jose Huizar's veteran former chief of staff, Ana Cubas, is running to be the first Latina to represent downtown and South L.A. She's running in Council District 9, a region where she has long toiled next to Huizar's CD 14. But the Los Angeles Times editorial board is backing lifer politician Curren Price for CD 9, curiously mouthing the establishment mantra that what L.A. really needs is another longtime, male, Sacramento legislator like Price serving on the muddled City Council.
"I think it says a lot about the difficulties of women raising money," says Gloria Romero, the first female majority leader of the California State Senate, who rose to significant power. "It's an old boys' network. The lobbyists are all male; they're all chummy with each other. You go hang out on the damn golf course."
Leo Briones, political consultant to Cubas, also slams the blatantly male political kingmaking at City Hall: "Women are a lot more policy-driven," he explains. "They run for what most progressive people would say are the right reasons. Men are more into machinations" — such as how to muscle female candidates out of running or fundraising, even if the job itself proves beyond some of the men's pay grades.
But if Cubas loses, women might re-establish a toehold on the L.A. City Council as quickly as July 23. That's because, on May 21, a big chunk of the Valley will vote in a special election to choose two finalists for a July 23 runoff for City Council District 6, which has no representative since Tony Cardenas jumped ship to join Congress.
Most people expect two capable and personable Latinas, LAUSD Board of Education member Nury Martinez and former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, to make the CD 6 runoff set for late July.
The Martinez-Montanez contest is an exception to the machismo that, like an episode of Mad Men but with cheaper suits, has stamped out most women from L.A. City Hall political posts on the eve of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's departure.
The race is shaping up as a Hatfields-and-McCoys passion play between warring political "families" who, for two decades, have dominated the incestuous world of Northeast Valley politics — and sent son upon son, rarely a daughter, to Sacramento or Spring Street.
Nury Martinez belongs to a clan whose power rests with Cardenas; state senator Alex Padilla (rumored to want to be mayor); ex-assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, who will join the L.A. City Council on July 1 (ditto); assemblyman Raul Bocanegra; and Martinez's husband, Gerry Guzman, a campaign whiz who works for Bocanegra.
Cindy Montanez's clan, meanwhile, is dominated by former California speaker Fabian Nunez; departing councilman (ex-state senator and ex-assemblyman) Richard Alarcon; state senator Kevin de Leon; community college trustees Steve Veres and Miguel Santiago; and Antonio Sanchez, an unknown running for LAUSD Board of Education who, as Villaraigosa's former body man, has friends in high places.
The East Valley used to be ruled by white politicians supported by campaign money from the Westside's once–wildly influential Henry Waxman-Howard Berman political machine. Then a political operative named James Acevedo got involved.
Godfather of Latino politics in the San Fernando Valley, Acevedo in 1993 helped get unknown government pencil-pusher Alarcon elected to City Council. Alarcon's campaign was run, according to Briones, by "Alex Padilla, this snot-nosed kid out of MIT who had just came back to the neighborhood, and was asked to come in and run the campaign [for Alarcon] — by one of his aunts. It was one of the greatest field campaigns I've ever seen."
Together they wiped out the Westsiders' colonial outpost in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Then the Latinos turned on each other.
Padilla caught the political bug, and at the urging of Acevedo he ran for Alarcon's City Council seat, which was being vacated by the perpetually job-hopping Alarcon. But Alarcon endorsed Padilla's opponent, Corinne Sanchez, a Latina attorney who ran human-services nonprofit El Proyecto del Barrio. Padilla beat Sanchez, and an epic political rift was born.
In another bit of backstabbing, even though Nury Martinez used to work as Alarcon's district director when he was a state senator, her husband joined the Padilla/Cardenas axis. Martinez did likewise last year, backing Raul Bocanegra over Alarcon during the latter's failed, ethics-clouded race for the state Assembly.
"She's not a very loyal person," Alarcon says. "Nury keeps trying to avoid telling people she's worked for me for 10 years — because she teamed up with the Fuentes/Padilla cabal." He insists, "They clearly are still driven in large measure by James Acevedo," now a well-off developer. "He tries to stay behind the scenes, but he's still very much engaged."
He says his clan's power is waning, noting, "I'll be out of office in two months. There is no Alarcon clan."
That could mean Alarcon's longtime rival, Padilla — and Padilla's ally in Sacramento, Felipe Fuentes, whom L.A. Weekly once dubbed "The Worst Legislator in California" — will become the kingmakers, deciding who "gets" to run for which Valley seat in L.A.'s high-stakes game of political musical chairs.
When the music stops, it's often the women who are left standing. "You have women interested in running for office, but they get talked out of running," Gloria Romero says. In the LAUSD board District 6 race now under way, Iris Zuniga, respected CEO of the successful charter school operator Youth Policy Institute, dropped out after qualifying for the May 21 ballot.
Nobody knows exactly why she bailed.
But some, including Romero, say it was Mr. Macho himself, Villaraigosa, who pressured Zuniga out — so his former aide, Antonio Sanchez, could win.
Millions of dollars, much of it raised by Villaraigosa, is spent on campaigns for the $45,000-a-year LAUSD school board posts. Some of those who run want the jobs as a springboard to higher office — not to confront issues in a district beset with problems. Says one political consultant, "A woman always gets fucked in these deals."
There's irony in the fact that the Padilla/Fuentes axis backs Martinez for City Council, after men draped in the past set up repeated obstacles to women hoping to run in recent years.
"Last I checked, it was Cardenas, Padilla, Fuentes, Bocanegra," says her rival, Montanez. "The whole city of Los Angeles knows it's the East Valley boys club."
[Note: Second paragraph updated and corrected Thursday, May 9, 10:40 a.m.]