OCT. 10, 2022 6:04 PM PT
When Nury Martinez was growing up in Pacoima, the child of immigrants from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, she watched politicians from afar.
They were white Jewish men, she said, even as the neighborhood became more and more Latino. Her own parents — her mother a seamstress turned factory worker, her father a dishwasher who was deported the year Martinez was born — had bought their home from a white family that left the San Fernando Valley for Kern County.
Their neighborhood was represented by “the Katzes of the world, the Bermans of the world,” Martinez said, alluding to Valley politicians such as former state Assemblyman Richard Katz and former Rep. Howard Berman. “I never saw them in the community or at the grocery store with us. I just saw them on TV.
“Now we have Latinos in office. We hold each other accountable,” Martinez added, sipping a michelada during an interview over lunch in Panorama City, a week before the political uproar that would torpedo her leadership of the Los Angeles City Council. “I think we are a huge political base.”
Her ascension as the first Latina to become City Council president had personified the gains in political representation that Latinos have made in Los Angeles. At City Hall, she has been known as a blunt and forthright speaker, perhaps at her most pointed when asking whether city policies will put the working-class neighborhoods that she represents — including Arleta, Van Nuys, Sun Valley and Panorama City — at a disadvantage.
But she is now in political free fall over the unguarded words that she, Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera were caught saying on a leaked recording.
During a freewheeling conversation about redistricting, Martinez used racist language about the Black child of Councilmember Mike Bonin; riffed that “little short dark people” in Koreatown were ugly — employing stereotypes long used against Oaxacans; and declared of Dist. Atty. George Gascón: “F— that guy. … He’s with the Blacks.”
De León, in turn, appeared to compare how Bonin handles his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.
Beyond the offensive words and jabs at other politicians, the recording gives an unvarnished glimpse into how Martinez and the others aim to preserve their political power.
“It’s not us,” de León said as the four strategized about redistricting. “It’s for Latino strength for the foreseeable future.”
Amid calls for her to quit the council, Martinez resigned Monday as its president, as the political support that elevated her to the role three years ago evaporated. She remains a councilmember.
It’s a swift fall for the former school board member, who joined the council after a come-from-behind victory almost nine years ago, defeating an opponent who had finished far ahead of her in the primary.
She had also been eyed as a possible candidate for mayor: Martinez recently told The Times she came within days of announcing a mayoral run last year, only to pull back as she considered how the sentiment had turned against incumbents.
Martinez, 49, is a product of the San Fernando Valley: She graduated from San Fernando High School and Cal State Northridge. During that time, she worked at a nonprofit focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and later at the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, which focuses on environmental justice.
In many ways, “her political history is informed by the disenfranchisement of the Latino community in the San Fernando Valley,” fighting for communities that were facing environmental hazards because they lacked political power, said Manuel Pastor, a USC sociology professor who directs the university’s Equity Research Institute.
Her politics were shaped by “the way in which the Latino part of the Valley has scrambled to get a voice,” Pastor added.
Martinez said that “what I remember growing up is we didn’t identify with the rest of the city.”
As a councilmember, Martinez has championed family issues such as parental leave, pushed for a renters’ relief program during the pandemic and worked to create a task force focused on human trafficking in the Valley. She fought to block a privately run facility for immigrant children from opening in her district, likening it to a prison.
But the issue that has dominated her tenure as council president is homelessness. Martinez has urged more attention to quality-of-life issues for working-class residents; at one point, when L.A. was hammering out rules about where people could sleep in cars, Martinez argued that the policies would disproportionately push vehicle dwellers near homes in her district.
“This isn’t going to be a problem in Bel-Air,” Martinez said.
In a speech laying out her agenda as council president, Martinez said the city needed to lead with compassion at homeless encampments, “but we also have to restore order in our streets.” At one point, when activists were protesting against policies she pushed, Martinez asserted that her supporters were not able to show up to comment because they were working.
“Latinos are frustrated; they’re tired,” she said recently. “They don’t want to deal with these encampments anymore.”
Carla Orendorff, who organizes unhoused people in Van Nuys, said Martinez “has always been incredibly divisive.”
Orendorff once hoped that the councilmember, with her history in environmental activism, might prove to be an ally in addressing the needs of people living in encampments. Instead, “she treats people as environmental hazards,” said Orendorff, who grew up in Van Nuys and Reseda and is part of the After Echo Park Lake research collective. “It wasn’t ever about housing. It’s about eliminating the sight of encampments.”
Martinez has disputed those arguments, pointing to supportive housing projects that have opened or broken ground in her district.
The City Council eventually adopted a law allowing councilmembers to designate areas as off-limits to homeless camps. This summer, the council expanded the law to prohibit homeless people from setting up tents within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers, as protesters shouted down councilmembers and, at one point, brought the raucous meeting to a halt.
The clashes with activists, who have also turned out to protest at Martinez’s home, have been emblematic of the leftward shift in Los Angeles politics. But Martinez has also had critics at the other end of the political spectrum, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which targeted her with mailers when she proposed reductions to the police budget.
As council president, Martinez was in many ways the opposite of her predecessor, Herb Wesson, who worked assiduously behind the scenes to ensure consensus. Martinez was comfortable letting divisions break out into the open, telling reporters, “I’m not afraid of having an 8-to-7 vote.”
Nor was she afraid to use political muscle: After indicted Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from his post, Martinez moved to put Wesson in his seat, despite warnings from her colleagues that the appointment needed time for legal vetting. A judge later struck down the appointment.
Last month, Martinez again moved aggressively to find a replacement, securing the votes to install legislative aide Heather Hutt — who on Monday called for all the elected officials heard on the tape to step down.
Several of Martinez’s colleagues questioned the move to install Hutt, delaying the decision. But Martinez received backup from Herrera; the labor leader appeared personally to demand that Hutt be approved — and questioned whether those who were dissenting were his “friends.”
In the leaked recording, Cedillo declares to Martinez, De León and Herrera that “the one who will support us is Heather Hutt.”
Martinez “was always a straight shooter who said the things that she thought, and you always knew where you stood with her,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., who attended college with her. He condemned her racist comments but said she was always fighting for people she felt were being passed over.
Pastor said it is unsurprising that Martinez is “a hard-knuckled political figure.”
But the racist and derogatory remarks in the leaked recording are devastating to her ability to lead in Los Angeles, “a city which requires that its leaders lead across communities,” Pastor said. “This is really a forfeiture of leadership, because it makes it extraordinarily difficult to claim to build bridges on the council if you express those kind of attitudes.”
By Monday afternoon, calls had grown for Martinez not just to relinquish the council presidency but to step down from the council entirely, with many also calling for De León, Cedillo and Herrera to lose their positions. Both mayoral candidates had called for Martinez to step down, as did one of her closest political allies, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla.
Her political future is in question, but the change that her rise represented is not.
Latinos are “paying attention,” Martinez said in an interview before the scandal erupted. “And that’s the difference between now and when my parents moved here.”
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.