Nithya Raman turned into a political celebrity almost overnight when she emerged as the face of a rising progressive vanguard to campaign for the Los Angeles City Council in 2020.
With a master’s degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and experience working with slum dwellers in India, Ms. Raman zeroed in on the city’s soaring housing prices and promised to give renters and homeless people a seat at the political table — her seat.
Ms. Raman, 42, wound up receiving more votes than any council member in the city’s history and began to draw comparisons to the progressive New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — “LAOC,” one local critic derisively called her.
Barely a year later, though, Ms. Raman ran into an adversary her grass-roots army was powerless to confront: the bruising power politics involved in running a city of 3.8 million people. The City Council had embarked on its once-a-decade redistricting process, and Ms. Raman, who had few allies among the city’s old-guard politicians, was threatened at one point with losing virtually all of the constituents who had elected her.
“I’ve been in politics for 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this before in my entire life,” said Jackie Goldberg, Ms. Raman’s representative on the redistricting commission. “I’ve never seen a group of people come together and try to disband the City Council district of a woman who got more votes than any of them ever did.”
The redistricting battle in Los Angeles underscores how some big city leaders — often Democrats — have used gerrymandering for their political advantage, much the way Republican lawmakers have redrawn legislative lines to secure or expand their control over some statehouses. Similar fights have been waged in Boston, Miami and Chicago.
The conflict in Los Angeles became a national controversy last fall after audio was leaked that revealed the shockingly frank, racist language that politicians used behind closed doors to discuss where to draw district boundaries. Nury Martinez, the former council president, used slurs to describe the young, Black child of a white colleague, as well as Indigenous immigrants from Oaxaca, and was forced to resign.
But the uproar over the recordings obscured the more fundamental impact of Los Angeles’s 2021 redistricting process: the degree to which political interference by council members directly undermined some of the very goals the politicians said they were trying to achieve.
As the city prepares this fall to look closely at what lessons were learned from the scandal-ridden process, The New York Times conducted dozens of interviews with redistricting commissioners, council members, neighborhood leaders and experts on voting rights to understand the ultimate outcomes of the closed-door maneuvering. Maps of the various district configurations were analyzed to examine their impacts on race and other demographics.
In instance after instance, the review showed, the recommendations of the commission appointed to review district boundaries — advice based on months of neighborhood meetings, expert studies and comments from the community — were largely ignored as the council pushed through a map that would help re-elect the incumbents.
The council members on the audio all largely maintained their existing districts — Ms. Martinez’s constituency remained nearly 100 percent intact — as did at least six other council members.
The city made no progress at all on one of its chief original aims — to build fairer representation for Latinos, who currently make up about half the city’s population but hold about a third of the council seats.
A longstanding goal of unifying Koreatown, which had historically been split across four council districts, was accomplished. But many residents there who had helped elect Ms. Raman — an important base of the renters she wanted to mobilize — no longer had her as their councilwoman.
“This all felt counter to the political explosion that got me here in the first place,” Ms. Raman said. “Eleven months after a very democratic process, a very undemocratic process takes hold.”
Frank Cardenas, who was the redistricting commission’s executive director, said he was “disgusted” at how an effort that involved the participation of some 15,000 Angelenos, in one way or another, was so abruptly set aside.
“Thousands of people got vested in the process of designing their city only to have their work and efforts pissed on by the council,” he said. “Here we have elected officials literally playing games with them while inviting them to be part of a democratic process — only to become authoritarian on them at the end. It was a breathtaking bait and switch.”
Several of the eight council members who spoke with The Times about the redistricting process said their interventions to prevent large changes to their districts were intended to protect the will of the people who had voted for them.
“The common interest we had was in preventing our constituents from being completely taken away from the council member they voted for,” said Paul Krekorian, who is now City Council president.
But in a City Council election campaign this spring, held to fill the seat vacated by Ms. Martinez, much of the blame was pointed at the Council itself.
“Neighborhoods like the one I live in, Sun Valley, were carved up for political purposes, not for empowering constituents,” said Imelda Padilla, a community organizer who was elected to the council in June. “These public officials were in that room discussing the consolidation of their own individual power, not equitable political representation.”
A process designed to be inclusive
Los Angeles is home to one of the country’s biggest immigrant populations and a network of stunningly disparate neighborhoods — the mansions of Brentwood, the high-rises of Century City, the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and the dense urban communities of Watts, Boyle Heights and Echo Park.
Nowhere in the country do City Council members preside over fiefs so large: 15 council members represent about 264,900 people each. To put it in perspective, this is one-and-a-half times the size of City Council districts in New York and five times more than those in Chicago. A single council district in Los Angeles is more populous than the vast majority of California cities.
Racial and ethnic groups have spent decades jostling for power and building coalitions, and the redrawing of the city’s political map has often exposed fault lines and simmering conflicts. The redistricting process is overseen by a commission that is supposed to be independent, yet the members are appointed by council members who can also ignore whatever recommendations the commission makes.
As things got underway in November 2020, the commission staff began reaching out to neighborhoods, urging them to participate and submit their own possible maps. “We need to hear about what you believe makes up your community,” the commission said in a flier. “Tell us about the schools, churches, parks and shopping areas. Tell us about the people.”
Faced with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers set up webcams around the city — some outdoors and some in large community centers — and more than 1,450 speakers ultimately provided testimony.
“We had assembly lines of people giving public testimony,” said Rafael González, who was the commission’s director of community outreach and engagement.
Maria-Isabel Rutledge, a 70-year-old resident of the 8th Council District in South Los Angeles, said residents there were trying to reverse a neighborhood decline she said had been exacerbated by a bout of political horse trading during the redistricting of 2012, when the University of Southern California and Exposition Park — magnets for jobs and spending in the community — were both moved from the 8th district into the 9th.
In the decade afterward, Ms. Rutledge said, businesses shut down, and streetlights and roads were not repaired as quickly. An alley near her house was left perpetually muddy.
So in 2021, she and her fellow activists pushed for the return of U.S.C.
Even bigger conflicts emerged in Koreatown, the place where Ms. Raman’s troubles started.
The neighborhood’s more than 100,000 people — including working-class immigrants from around the world — live in a mix of aging apartment buildings and luxurious new high-rises alongside bustling strip malls, bars and restaurants, all packed into an area less than three square miles that is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country.
The area, west of downtown, had been split among four council districts — one of them Ms. Raman’s — meaning that for decades, it had never had a single council member to represent its collective interests. Though a majority of Koreatown’s residents are now Latino, Asian residents there had long pushed for more direct representation.
But consolidating 100,000 people into one district would require hefty adjustments, and Ms. Raman was poised to lose about 17,000 Koreatown residents, some of whom had been among her strongest supporters.
Drawing boundary lines is typically a rough-and-tumble process, and several council members nominated local heavyweights, including former lawmakers and lobbyists, as their representatives on the redistricting commission. Ms. Raman stayed true to her roots by naming a relative political outsider, Alexandra Suh, who leads the nonprofit Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.
But when the commission broke into groups to focus on different areas of the city, Ms. Suh was grouped with commissioners from the city’s Westside, and she felt she was left out of many discussions on how Koreatown might be carved up.
“It was clear that people had come in with agendas,” Ms. Suh said.
As the map developed, Ms. Raman and Mr. Krekorian, who was already due to leave the Council in 2024 because of term limits, were offered two alternative districts. One of them would lose the entire population of voters who had elected them only a year earlier. The other alternative showed Ms. Raman losing about 70 percent of her constituents.
Fred Ali, who was the chairman of the redistricting commission, said that Ms. Raman’s district was located in the center of the city and none of the goals the commission was trying to achieve — accommodating population shifts westward, uniting Koreatown, building better Latino representation in the San Fernando Valley — could be accomplished without significant changes in that center.
But David Ely, a redistricting consultant for the Council, said it was his impression that Ms. Raman was vulnerable because she was a political newcomer.
“She was perceived as the one least able to defend herself,” Mr. Ely said. “She wasn’t strongly connected and not part of any power blocks on the Council.”
Jonathan Mehta Stein, the executive director of California Common Cause, which closely monitored the redistricting process, said he believed there was also a larger political goal: “They pulled her base out from under her to have her turn down the volume on behalf of renters,” he said.
Ms. Suh tried to introduce alternatives that would preserve more of Ms. Raman’s district, but to no avail.
That’s when Ms. Raman decided that she would need a new strategy. “Raman was wrestling a pig,” Mr. Stein said of the process, “and she had to get in the mud herself.”
Joining the fray
Ms. Suh was thanked for her help, and told she was being replaced.
Enter Ms. Goldberg, a veteran Los Angeles politician — the city’s first openly gay City Council member, a three-term member of the State Assembly and a two-time member of the Los Angeles Board of Education.
“Alexandra did not have the political know-how compared to an old political hand like Jackie,” Ms. Raman recalled. “Unfortunately, I felt like I needed a warrior like her.”
Ms. Goldberg was a veteran of many past political realignments. “I have voted in six council districts,” she said. “And I’ve been in the same house for 30 years.”
By the time she was brought in to help salvage Ms. Raman’s district, she said, “it was clear the fix was in.”
“I got there too late,” she said.
As she saw it, Ms. Raman’s election represented a threat to the “liberal Democrat” status quo that was roiling Democratic politics across the country. “Nithya is a leftist,” she said, part of a wave of “new, young people who think we can do more.”
Ms. Goldberg’s entry on Ms. Raman’s behalf turned what had been a difficult process into a highly contentious one, several commissioners said, as she accused fellow commissioners of drawing boundaries that were racist and insisted on preserving more of Ms. Raman’s district.
“The power of her anger was visible,” Mr. Cardenas, the executive director, said of Ms. Goldberg.
Several other council members also brought in new appointees — for political and other reasons — and soon, the Council was getting even more involved. Mr. Ali said he started to receive calls from Ackley Padilla, Ms. Martinez’s chief of staff.
Initially, the calls were “questions about process and plans for upcoming meetings,” Mr. Ali said. “And then there were calls with specific questions about particular map configurations, such as why certain changes were being made.” Ultimately, he said, “I was being asked to consider other configurations.”
Mr. Padilla said his phone calls were part of the normal process of guiding the deliberations. “Providing input was both ordinary and appropriate,” he said.
In October 2021, the commission finally released its plan for the city, dubbed the “K2.5” map. The commission said it achieved a number of goals: It would keep more neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves whole; the San Fernando Valley’s growth would be recognized by the creation of five council districts entirely in the Valley; Koreatown would be unified; and Black and Latino voter power would be “maintained, and in some cases, strengthened.”
The final lines of Ms. Raman’s district were left for the City Council to decide, an acknowledgment that the decision, ultimately, would be a political one.
Richard Polanco, a former State Senate majority leader who was council member Gilbert Cedillo’s appointee, said he thought the map “addressed the needs of Los Angeles” and that he had expected the Council to adopt it.
“We did our jobs and shame on them,” he said.
The gloves come off
The City Council, charged at that point with adopting or tweaking the commission’s map, proceeded in a series of 38 motions to redraw it entirely. The effect of these changes, The Times analysis shows, was to return to a map that closely resembled what had been drawn during the last redistricting in 2012 — the point where they had all started.
While Ms. Raman did not lose her entire district, she lost about 40 percent of her constituency, more than any other council member.
The hope of creating a new Latino-majority district went nowhere in the end — the city ended up with exactly the same number of Latino-majority districts as it had in 2012.
U.S.C. stayed exactly where it was, despite the efforts of Ms. Rutledge and her neighbors.
And attempts to more fairly realign one of the fastest-growing areas of the city, the San Fernando Valley, were undermined when Ms. Martinez, the former council president who had been heard scheming on the audio recording, fought back the commission’s plan to move Van Nuys Airport and the Sepulveda Basin — a possible venue location for the 2028 Olympics — out of her district.
In the chaotic days after the audio was leaked, council members scrambled to demonstrate their support for redistricting reform — though they quickly opposed a proposal in the State Legislature to take the whole process out of their hands.
In June, a group of academics that studied the recent problems, advised adding 10 more seats to the City Council, in addition to establishing truly independent redistricting commissions for both the council and the school board.
Now, after months of listening sessions held around town, City Council leaders say they plan to put the two questions to voters next year, with the precise details to be discussed this fall.
Creating more seats, many experts say, could also potentially reduce corruption. Los Angeles has seen a parade of corruption scandals at City Hall, often tied to the immense power that council members wield over commerce and land development in such large districts.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was set to represent the newly unified Koreatown, in March became the third council member in less than four years to be convicted on corruption charges and was sentenced last week to 42 months in prison. Curren Price, the council member who had managed to hold on to U.S.C. and Exposition Park, was charged in June with embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest. He has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.
Sara Sadhwani, an assistant politics professor at Pomona College who was part of the academic panel that suggested reforms, said that a narrow window for change could close soon as last year’s audio scandal fades from memory and public pressure diminishes.
“It’s a rare thing to see a council member or any legislator that has such a power have a willingness to relinquish it,” she said.
Michael Wines contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes, Susan C. Beachy, Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.