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Civics & Democracy

Who Will Replace Mark Ridley-Thomas On The LA City Council?

A man with dark brown skin and a receding hairline holds his index finger in the air while delivering a speech.
Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted on federal corruption charges this week.
(Paul Redmond
Getty Images)
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The conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas on federal corruption charges Thursday triggered his automatic removal from the L.A. City Council. Under the city charter, an “office becomes vacant” when the person who holds it “is convicted of a felony.”

Ridley-Thomas, one of L.A.’s most prominent politicians, plans to appeal his conviction, according to his defense team. The charter is silent on what will happen if his conviction is overturned.

Ridley-Thomas represented the 10th district, which stretches from Koreatown west to Mid-City along Wilshire Boulevard and south to West Adams and Leimert Park. Former Mayor Tom Bradley once represented the district.

First, some recent history:

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In October 2021, the City Council suspended Ridley-Thomas following his indictment. It appointed his chief of staff to be a non-voting caretaker of the office. In February 2022, it appointed Herb Wesson, a former councilmember for District 10, to temporarily replace Ridley-Thomas as a voting member.

After a court ruled Wesson had been termed out of office and could no longer serve, the Council appointed Wesson’s chief of staff, Heather Hutt, as a non-voting caretaker and then later as a voting member of the council.

But her appointment was to replace a suspended member — Ridley-Thomas. Now that he’s been formally ousted, the seat is vacant again.

Next steps

The City Council has a number of options going forward.

The first would be to appoint a caretaker who would have no vote on the council. The caretaker would serve until the next regularly scheduled election in March 2024, when Ridley-Thomas would have been up for reelection. It would leave the district with no representation on the council for some time.

That would be “a very unpopular thing,” said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

The council could also appoint someone as a full voting member who would serve until next year’s election. Appointing Hutt would be one option.

Hutt has already announced plans to run for the seat. Appointing Hutt would give her the advantage of running as an incumbent. State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer also has announced he will be a candidate.

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The open seat is “an opportunity for those in power to put their allies into position,” said Sara Sadhwani, a professor of politics at Pomona College.

Secret tape recordings from 2021 revealed that’s what happened after Ridley-Thomas was suspended. Former Council President Nury Martinez, former Councilmember Gil Cedillo, City Councilmember Kevin De León and a powerful labor leader were heard in a meeting discussing how Hutt would likely be an ally.

“The one who will support us is Heather Hutt,” said Cedillo.

“I like Heather Hutt,” said Martinez.

“Heather is a personal friend,” said L.A. County Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Ron Herrera.

Another empty seat goes to voters on Tuesday

Racist, homophobic, and anti-indigenous remarks were also made during the conversation. Release of the audio led to the resignations of Martinez and Herrera. Cedillo was voted out of office before the audio was released. De León has held onto his seat despite calls for his resignation.

Another option for the Council would be to call for a special election. The winner would serve out the remainder of Ridley-Thomas’s term. Special elections for City Council typically cost several million dollars.

The city is currently conducting a special election to fill Martinez’ District 6 seat in the San Fernando Valley. The election is Tuesday. If none of the seven candidates win a majority of votes, the top two finishers will face each other in a June runoff.

The decision on how to proceed comes before a council that looks considerably different than it did a year ago. There are five new members, four of whom are decidedly more progressive than their predecessors.

“There’s a lot of turmoil at City Hall, but it’s also maybe a time for some freshness and new faces,” Sonenshein said.

“The City Council looks very different today,” Sadhwani said. “I think it's a very different playing field today than it was two years ago.”

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