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Politics Year-In-Review: Protests Sparked Bold Promises From City Leaders. Will They Deliver?

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A protestor sits at Grand Park across the street from City Hall on June 6. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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As 2020 mercifully approaches its end, let's take a moment to process this year's avalanche of Los Angeles political news:

THE PRIMARY

It feels like decades ago, but before the pandemic shut down in-person gatherings, California held its presidential primary election earlier in the calendar than in recent years, drawing a pack of Democratic candidates to duke it out in the state. In Los Angeles County, voting was complicated by a brand-new format: consolidated vote centers instead of neighborhood polling places; newly certified ballot marking machines; and, for the first time, an electronic check-in system connected to a statewide database.

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On March 3, a combination of an insufficient number of vote centers in high-demand areas, printer jams and delays with check-in tablets created long lines and headaches -- with the worst problems concentrated downtown and on college campuses. Elected leaders vowed to fix the debacle, but along came the coronavirus, upending everyday life and pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature to order counties to mail ballots to every registered voter for the November election.

CITY HALL SCANDAL

Meanwhile, a long-simmering corruption scandal at City Hall erupted: the U.S. Attorney's Office filed charges against nearly a dozen political operatives and entities connected to City Councilman José Huizar, alleging he was at the center of a criminal organization and used his position on a powerful planning committee to extract cash bribes, gifts and campaign donations from real estate developers. Five men have pleaded guilty so far, including former City Councilman Mitch Englander. Huizar pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled for June 2021.

THE PROTESTS

Throughout 2020, politics in Los Angeles was caught in the crosscurrent of two major forces: social justice protests and calls to re-imagine public safety, led by Black Lives Matter-LA and other groups in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd; and the devastation COVID-19 has wrought on the city's budget. The movement to "Defund the Police" and reallocate resources to alternatives such as conflict mediation, mental health care and housing took on a greater urgency as the coronavirus drained tax revenue and forced cuts to city services.

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As protesters filled the streets, L.A.'s city council acknowledged advocates of "the People's Budget" and voted to strip $150 million of LAPD funding, a small but symbolic gesture, according to organizers. Now, the future of that money is in question: $50 million went to help bridge the growing budget gap, including staving off city worker furloughs, but Mayor Garcetti rejected the council's plans for most of the balance, asking them to invest more in innovations such as a pilot program to send mental health workers instead of police to answer non-violent 911 calls, and less in the basics of city services, including sidewalk repairs.

THE ELECTION

Oh yeah -- there was also an election in November, which inspired the most California voters to cast a ballot since the 1950s. In Los Angeles County, turnout rose to roughly 76%, just shy of the historic enthusiasm for the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

The result? Progressives with bold "change" agendas won big in Los Angeles: George Gascón defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey to become District Attorney; the five-member L.A. County Board of Supervisors became fully represented by women with the election of Holly Mitchell; county voters adopted a charter amendment to shift resources away from law enforcement toward social services; and Nithya Raman became the first challenger since 2003 to defeat an incumbent City Councilmember.

The wave of liberal victories in L.A. contravened a mixed bag at the statewide level, where wins for some corporate-friendly ballot measure campaigns and Republican congressional candidates indicated the state wasn't ready to fully adopt the progressive wish-list, such as allowing affirmative action at public institutions.

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WHAT'S NEXT

Looking ahead, there are major questions about how Los Angeles will resolve its fiscal crisis -- the worst since the Great Depression -- without laying off hundreds of workers. At the same time, leaders have committed to substantive changes in how law enforcement interacts with the community, including finding ways to get police out of traffic enforcement and situations that call for supportive services, such as homelessness outreach. Will cash-strapped leaders make good on those promises? A newly expanded progressive wing on the City Council could inject new energy and ideas into that endeavor.

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