Nury Martinez Will Make 'Herstory' As LA's First Latina City Council President. Here Are Her Priorities

Nury Martinez represents the 6th District in the Los Angeles City Council. On Dec. 3rd, 2019 she was elected to succeed Herb Wesson as City Council President. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

For the first time ever, a Latina will be at the helm of the Los Angeles City Council, shaping policy that impacts the everyday lives of around 4 million city residents.

On Tuesday the council voted unanimously to elect San Fernando Valley Councilwoman Nury Martinez to succeed outgoing Council President Herb Wesson. Wesson was a trailblazer in his own right, the first African American to lead the council. He announced last week he would step aside to focus on his campaign for an L.A. County Board of Supervisors seat.

Wesson, who will complete his term on the council, nominated Martinez to the top spot. Her new role becomes effective Jan. 5. The first meeting she's set to chair is Jan. 14, after the council returns from winter break.

Not long ago, Martinez's meteoric rise to one of the most powerful offices in L.A. would have been inconceivable.

A former San Fernando city councilwoman and LAUSD board member, Martinez pulled off an upset victory in the 2013 special election to represent L.A.'s 6th District, which includes cities like Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Sun Valley and Panorama City. The seat had been vacated by Tony Cárdenas when he went to Congress, but at the time high-profile Democrat Cindy Montañez, a former state assemblywoman, was assumed to have a lock on taking over his term.

Despite trailing 19 points after the primary, Martinez shocked the political establishment by edging Montañez out in a low-turnout July election — winning by 969 votes.

"To think, six years ago, I wasn't even supposed to be here. I worked so hard and I was able to turn it around," Martinez said, crediting her victory to walking the district and speaking to voters one-on-one. At the time, she was the sole woman on the L.A. council. "It's not only an honor, but I really and truly feel blessed. And I just want to make everyone proud."

"It's monumental. She looks like the face of L.A. and she's been elected to the highest position possible," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus with California State University, Los Angeles. "Usually people consider city council president to be a stepping stone to elsewhere — and we'll see what the future holds."

One by one, fellow councilmembers rose to approve her nomination. The only other woman on the 15-member body, Monica Rodriguez, addressed Martinez directly.

"Proud to support you in making 'herstory' in the City of Los Angeles," Rodriguez said. "I support Nury Martinez."

When the vote was confirmed, and the motion to elect Martinez passed, the audience in the council chamber erupted in applause.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we did make history," Wesson said. "We are the city of L.A., that's what we do."

15th District Councilman Joe Buscaino was elevated to president pro-tem during the same council session. His father — an immigrant from Italy — was in the audience to witness the election.

"It's a time of challenges and opportunities," Buscaino said. "I believe Council President-Elect Martinez is just who we need at this moment."

"She represents a new generation of leadership that will help advocate for all communities, and Los Angeles is sending a powerful message that needs to reverberate throughout our entire state and beyond," said Yvonne Gonzalez Duncan, state director for the California branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

"Women, including women of color, are qualified, ready and determined to be a strong voice and presence in our centers of power from school districts to city halls and the statehouse of California."

Martinez's parents emigrated from Mexico and raised their family in the San Fernando Valley, her father working long hours as a dishwasher and mother going to work in a factory across the street.

"My mother was the force within our home, and my father felt very comfortable with that," Martinez said. "So I grew up in a household where women led, and we felt empowered."

Martinez said these are the values she tries to instill in her 4th grader daughter, and a message she wants to project to girls everywhere. "You can be anything you want," she said.

ON THE ISSUES

Martinez emphasizes her advocacy for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Los Angeles. Prior to elected office she worked for an environmental nonprofit, and in April introduced a motion to create a "Green New Deal" for the city. She said environmental justice for poor communities will take precedence when she works on major city goals like zero carbon emissions by 2045.

"These children have grown up across the street from landfills, from recycling facilities, and polluting industries," Martinez said. "We can't forget the neighborhoods who have been left out."

Early in her tenure, Martinez made human trafficking a policy priority, cracking down on areas known for prostitution, like the Sepulveda Boulevard corridor in Van Nuys. She helped earmark money for human trafficking victims — although according to an LAist/KPCC investigation, some of that work has been criticized for criminalizing sex workers who are then forced back on the streets after being released from custody.

Homelessness is issue No. 1 on the minds of Angelenos — and it'll be a challenge for the next council president to prove the city can make headway.

"Our constituencies are frustrated — they've taxed themselves. They expect this council and this city to move forward with projects," Martinez said. "But we also have to grapple with the fact that not everyone is doing their fair share. And if we want to solve this crisis, every single one of us has got to say 'it's ok to build it in my community.'"

Martinez has already exceeded a goal the council set for itself last year — when each member made a non-binding pledge to approve 222 new supportive housing units in their districts by July 2020. Martinez has backed the approval of 310 units in the 6th District since July 1, 2017, according to a United Way tracker.

She said issues affecting children and families — like expanding paid family leave and addressing housing instability — are at the top of her agenda.

"I talk about children living in motels, I talk about families becoming homeless," Martinez said. "How do we prevent those things from happening to begin with?"

She recently created a program to help low-income tenants stay in their homes as landlords across California push through big rent hikes ahead of a statewide cap on increases beginning in 2020.

Los Angeles is facing looming budget challenges, largely driven by the rising costs of public employee pensions and healthcare premiums for nearly 50,000 city workers.

Many economists are predicting a nationwide economic slowdown, or possible recession, in the near future. A report released by the City Administrative Officer in October predicted shortfalls of $200-400 million annually for the next four years if the city doesn't find major savings somewhere in the budget.

How does Martinez plan to get her ambitious agenda accomplished while keeping the fiscal peace?

"First and foremost, we should never balance the budget on the backs of working people," she said, promising to more fully discuss her policy agenda when she takes over the council president's office in January. "But that being said, we need to be smarter about how we use our resources and make sure we're saving money where we need to be, and looking at other pots of money as well."

Martinez has weathered at least one scandal: her 2015 reelection campaign was accused of fraud — allegedly faking small donors from her district in order to qualify for taxpayer matching funds.

In September, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced it wouldn't pursue charges. Investigators with the Public Integrity Division said they had discovered some $5 donations to Martinez were not made by the donors listed in her filings with the Ethics Commission, but there was insufficient evidence of who was responsible to pursue a case.

The FBI was also looking into Martinez's fundraising, but it's unclear if that investigation is still going on.

Neither she nor her staff were named in an unrelated FBI warrant that connects a number of city council members and their aides to a widespread federal investigation looking into possible bribery, extortion and other corruption in City Hall.

HERB WESSON'S NEXT CHAPTER

Wesson has led the Council for almost eight years. In that time he's been a power broker, deciding council committees' makeup and charting the approach the city takes to policy proposals. He rose up through the halls of power in Sacramento, formerly as the Speaker of the California Assembly.

He leaves a legacy as "one of the most powerful council presidents in history," said Regalado at Cal State L.A., describing the behind-the-scenes work Wesson did to line up council votes. "A lot of IOUs, a lot of allegiances to balance. Somebody you definitely don't want to cross. Nury Martinez is stepping into some very big shoes."

Up next: Wesson's race for the county's Board of Supervisors. The 2nd District Wesson wants to represent includes parts of Inglewood, Compton, Leimert Park and Culver City. It's an open seat because Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is termed out.

Wesson is facing well-known and well-funded competition, including former L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry, who famously clashed with Wesson over redistricting.

State Senator Holly Mitchell is also in the running — she's the chair of the state senate's Budget Committee.