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Herb Wesson seeks second term as powerful president of LA City Council

L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson is expected to be reelected by his colleagues Tuesday.
L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson is expected to be reelected by his colleagues Tuesday.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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Eric Garcetti is in his first day as L.A.'s mayor, but at City Hall, there's another man whose power rivals that of the mayor — and on Tuesday Herb Wesson hopes to extend his sway when the City Council votes on whether to give him a second term as council president.

There's no question that when it comes to the council chamber at City Hall, Wesson is in charge. As council president, he is responsible for presiding over meetings, maintaining a quorum and listening to public comments. But, his power goes far beyond parliamentary rules. This is how Wesson addressed Richard Riordan last fall when the former mayor pushed the council about pension reform: "You know what Mr. Mayor — why didn't you fix it when you were mayor?" 

And when Riordan tried to respond, Wesson shot back: "No, there's no back and forth. I get the last word. This is our house."

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Wesson is a charming man who wears loud suits and likes a good joke. At Garcetti's swearing-in on Sunday, he wore a white-on-white suit and quipped, "I'll be back in my ice cream truck in 45 minutes." In fact, at one point, the 61-year-old Cleveland native wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Instead, he ended up in politics.

Wesson worked for former County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and City Councilman Nate Holden before running for the state Assembly. He spent six years in Sacramento and was Speaker from 2002 to 2004. He joined the L.A. City Council a year later and quietly built a coalition. Two years ago, when Eric Garcetti stepped down as council president as he prepared to run for mayor, Wesson had enough votes to assume the leadership role.

"I've heard this word used a lot about him. Herb's a 'transactional' type guy," said David Sanders with the Service Employees International Union, Local 721. He's worked with Wesson on labor issues, including pension reform.

"What I've found so far in our dealings with him as a coalition is that he will defer to his staff and rightly so in most cases," Sanders said. "I think they do more of the weeds stuff and they present him with, 'Here are the options.'" 

And usually Wesson chooses the option that gets him to enough yes votes. He's known for giving clear instructions on how he wants the City Council to vote on any given policy issue. 

"I feel that it's my job as the quarterback to call the plays and that's what I do," Wesson said.

The council president is also a formidable opponent. Though no one was willing to criticize Wesson on the record, those who work with him agree that it's better to be on his side. Ruben Gonzalez is vice president of public policy and political affairs for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. He frequently lobbies the council on behalf of the business community.

"A master champion"

"It's like playing chess against a master, a master champion," Gonzalez said. "He knows the rules, he knows the body, he knows how to work with his members and drive them in the direction he wants."

Wesson's rise to president coincided with redistricting, and he wielded enormous influence on the commission charged with redrawing the boundaries for council districts. When Councilwoman Jan Perry challenged Wesson, she lost her seat as chair of the Energy and Environment Committee. She also lost most of the downtown assets in her district. On the day the new council district lines were approved, Perry — knowing she'd have to serve alongside Wesson for the rest of her term — acknowledged his status.

"I feel your wrath, I feel your power," Perry said in a speech on the  chamber floor.

And then she apologized for not supporting his candidacy for council president:

"This is a lesson in the wise use of power, to respect the process, to respect the people and to do their business in the light of day. And I want to tell you publicly Mr. President I regret not voting for you and I am sorry." 

Civic leader Steve Soboroff has known Wesson for 25 years and he says he sees a different side of the politician.

"Every once in a while Herb can be sitting up there and he can say something to somebody that they will think is, I dunno, condescending or disrespectful," Soboroff said. "And he doesn't mean it — I know he doesn't mean it that way." 

Los Angeles now has a mayor who knows first-hand the power that comes with being council president. Wesson, who endorsed Garcetti, says he will continue to remind his own colleagues of what it means to govern a city with a weak mayoral system.

"I recognize the power and the influence that the council has," Wesson said during an interview in his council office. "And I think that over the past year-and-a-half, I have spent time making sure that the members understand the ability, influence and power and responsibility that we have as a council.