First Person | Fall 2020 Issue

Governing Los Angeles

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez on governing through crises

By Nury Martinez

I DON’T SLEEP MUCH. I stay up late, reviewing reports and briefs my staff sends me, watching the news and scanning my phone for stories that might impact my constituents here in the northeast San Fernando Valley and across the city. In these dark days of COVID-19, where Latinos and Blacks are the No. 1 victims of the health and economic effects of this deadly virus, relevant stories aren’t hard to find.

Mornings start early in our home in working-class Sun Valley, which I share with my husband and 11-year-old daughter. She’s brilliant, thoughtful, caring — and stubborn (like her mom). I overheard her talking to a friend recently who was concerned her family was going to lose their housing. It was similar to a story she told me back in January before I became City Council president — when another friend’s father broke his arm and could not work. She asked me then as she did now: “What is going to happen to them?”

As a Latina who grew up the child of working-poor immigrants, my answer has been a Families First Agenda that I launched when I became council president. It prioritizes the working poor — people who do everything right and still struggle.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 also prioritizes the working poor.

Even when I’m exhausted after a full day and night of work, as well as mom, wife and daughter responsibilities to assist my 81-year-old mother, that reality keeps me up.

As a child, I would sit at the feet of my late father, a Mexican immigrant who took the bus six days a week for 30 years to work as a dishwasher to support our family. We would watch Spanish-language news together and talk about politics and the world around us.

“Necesitas saber lo que está pasando, hija.” You need to know what’s going on, he would say. My father was empowering me. He was the first male feminist I ever knew. He taught me compassion and to consider all people’s perspectives.

I miss him every single day.

My mom worked as a seamstress and a factory worker. She is a strong woman whose rules were the law in our house. She taught my sister and me to be bold, assertive and fearless as women.

Our parents also instilled in us a strong work ethic.

During the pandemic, while other governmental bodies delayed meetings for long periods of time, our City Council continued to meet virtually, and still does.

Since my staff and I and others have to physically be in council chambers for those meetings, it is not without risk.

Since March, we’ve had several City Hall staff and family members test positive for COVID-19. I’ve been tested twice for possible exposure to the virus. Unlike more than 230,000 Angelenos, I tested negative, and thank God all who tested positive have recovered.

COVID-19 is pushing our working-poor families, and others, to the breaking point. And it’s pushing children to have unnatural conversations about rent, bills and money.

I’ve worked with my colleagues on the City Council to protect them by enacting a strong eviction moratorium, and directing hundreds of millions of dollars to provide renters relief, childcare, eviction defense, free grants for small businesses, including street vendors, and a program that will pay low-income workers who test positive for the virus to stay home and recover. We’ve also enacted worker retention laws and paid family leave during COVID, as well as hosted community food and diaper giveaways, free laundry service and countless other assistance events throughout the city, but my overriding fear is it will not be enough. We need more state and federal assistance to keep people in their homes — especially where we lack funding or legal jurisdiction to act.

On a separate track, the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by law enforcement has rightly led to a reckoning on racism that has been due in this country for hundreds of years. It is my hope and goal, as the City of Los Angeles reimagines public safety, that those Black and Brown communities who are directly impacted and will be affected by any outcomes are the ones who lead the discussion on solutions.

I grew up in Pacoima and worked as a social and environmental activist. When I became the first Latina City Council president in 170 years, I said, “Little girls who looked and sounded like me didn’t ever think they could one day hold such positions of power.”

There are some who wish it weren’t so. As council president, I routinely experience racist, sexist and sexually abusive attacks from protesters outside my home, in City Council meetings and on social media. None of that will keep me from doing this job that I love. I am a strong Latina, and just like the people I represent, I don’t quit.

Image Needed

Nury Martinez

Nury Martinez is the president of the Los Angeles City Council.

For this special edition of Blueprint’s Landscape section, we asked writers to consider the ways their lives have been changed by this year’s crises. Contributors include a recent UCLA graduate, a performing artist and the President of the Los Angeles City Council, among others. Here are their thoughts.

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