You may remember the explosive recording of Los Angeles City Council members that was leaked last year. The profanity-laced audio, in which L.A. leaders can be heard mocking people in racist terms, stunned the city and prompted several high-profile resignations.
Less attention was paid to what the council members had actually gathered to discuss: the process of redistricting in Los Angeles, which is very much a fraught endeavor.
My colleagues Jill Cowan, Serge F. Kovaleski and Leanne Abraham recently published an article about that process, and the bruising power politics involved in running a city of 3.8 million people.
Their reporting reveals how council members largely ignored the stated goals of improving representation for Angelenos, and fought instead to push through new voting maps in 2021 that would allow them to keep their seats. This is essentially gerrymandering at the city level, much the way state lawmakers have redrawn legislative maps in many states to secure or expand their control over statehouses.
I spoke to Jill about the article, which you can read in full here. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
How did you come to this issue?
We had been reporting on the leaked recording of L.A. city officials making offensive comments, and there was, understandably, a lot of focus at that time on the language that they used. What we wanted to understand was what they were actually talking about: What was the context of this meeting? And when they were griping about a lack of Latino representation, what tangible changes were they trying to make?
I think the coverage of the leaked audio was probably the first time a lot of Angelenos had really heard about the redistricting process in L.A. Could you give us a primer on what it is and why it matters?
Every 10 years, after the census, Los Angeles, like other cities, is supposed to redraw its City Council district map to make representation around the city fairer and more equitable, based on where populations have shifted. It’s a significant process in all big cities, but particularly in Los Angeles. The stakes are higher here than anywhere else because L.A. City Council districts have the largest populations in the country. This means that if you are elected to the L.A. City Council, you have a lot more power than a typical municipal official. That’s in large part why so many former state lawmakers come back from Sacramento to run for the L.A. City Council, rather than the other way around.
How are the redistricting decisions made?
Los Angeles City Council members have the ultimate say over their own district boundaries, which, as our article shows, sets up a pretty intense competition: If council members were able to persuade a certain group of people living in their district to elect them, they want to keep those people as their constituents. And unlike at the state or federal level, where redistricting is party-oriented — meaning Democrats and Republicans are trying to pick up seats for their teams — the L.A. City Council is dominated by Democrats, so the fight is more like “Survivor” than, say, chess. The council members are out for themselves, unless they can make alliances.
In essence, because everyone is on the same side — as in, they’re almost all Democrats — no one is actually on the same side.
Yes, exactly! I think one of the fascinating things to me was that these redistricting fights are incredibly complex, and many date back decades. It was also interesting how much bald political maneuvering seems to be legal. After the recording emerged, a lot of people wondered whether the Voting Rights Act had been violated, but legal experts we spoke with for the article essentially said that the law was written to help prevent the most egregious racial gerrymandering in the South. Los Angeles in the 2020s is very different — it’s much more diverse and much more geographically mixed. That actually could make Los Angeles a great test case for reforming the City Council to be more representative and more responsive, because the city is a kind of demographic preview of the nation more broadly.
How does the redistricting process affect everyday Angelenos?
Experts point to the string of corruption scandals at L.A. City Hall as an outgrowth of the powerful influence council members have over land use and development in their districts, which are, as I mentioned in the article, huge. And for all the big pronouncements about reform after the leak of the recording, people with power are typically not eager to give it up.
So if Angelenos actually want reform, they have to stay engaged, even though the immediate outrage over the recording has mostly settled. City Council leaders who were vocal about no longer allowing elected leaders to essentially pick their own constituents, as has been the case with the current redistricting process, say they’ll let voters decide next year. They’ve also said they want voters to decide whether to expand the Council, which was something a group of experts recommended as a way of combating corruption, but has been attempted before without success. Make sure you vote!
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from John Mauger, who recommends a trip to a ghost town in San Bernardino County:
“One of my favorite places in California to take relatives or friends visiting me is Calico Ghost Town Regional Park, just a short drive outside Barstow. The location is now a county-operated park with regular hours of operation.
I have been lucky enough to have visited during Civil War re-enactment week, featuring not only one hundred or so blue and gray soldiers, but also dozens of people in period dress cooking, sewing and performing other duties to maintain the atmosphere of the 19th-century life.
It is an excellent day trip during ordinary days with something to captivate young and old visitors. You won’t be disappointed.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
Thirty-three nonfiction books to read this fall.
Today we’re asking about love: not whom you love, but what you love about your corner of California.
Email us a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — and we may share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
The Bay Area remains a top destination for those looking to raise a family, according to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The publication ranked the San Jose metro area the second-best city in the country for families in 2023-24, a boon for the region, which has been losing residents to more affordable West Coast cities, The Mercury News reports.
The publication, well known for its rankings, including its annual list of top colleges, cited San Jose’s strong high school education system and high rates of college preparedness as assets, but subtracted points for towering housing costs and a high cost of living. The ranking also took into account quality of life and job opportunities, crime rates and average salaries.