By Joel Sappell and Laura Brady-Allen
José Huizar has become the invisible man.
Before FBI agents served search warrants at his Boyle Heights home and city offices in November as part of an apparent “pay-to-play” corruption probe, the councilman was an impressive practitioner of retail politics and photo ops.
His Facebook and Twitter pages show that, in the six months leading up to the warrants, he appeared at roughly 120 events across his district—from the Eastside to Eagle Rock to downtown. There are pictures of him at ribbon cuttings, community meetings, youth fests, healthcare clinics, parades, high school graduations and more.
“Love meeting with community members to discuss the issues most important to them,” he explained in a Facebook post after visiting the Pico Gardens public housing development on November 1.
But that was then.
In the four months since the November 7 searches, Huizar’s social media have not shown him at a single community meeting or event. Although his office has continued to promote a variety of gatherings, the boss has been a basic no-show.
For example, there are no posts of Huizar attending any of Council District 14’s half-dozen holiday events that feature his name, including the tree lighting at Eagle Rock City Hall, which he attended in 2017 and where he has a field office. The councilman did, however, post a family photo on Christmas Eve that drew many supportive comments, including this one: “We’re praying for you.”
As Huizar has retreated from community engagements, his power and profile at City Hall also have faded. In the wake of the warrants, the City Council president stripped Huizar of all four of his committee assignments, most notably his chairmanship of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
From that coveted post, Huizar’s clout stretched to every corner of the city, wherever development issues big and small were being debated and decided. In the power dynamics of City Hall, his colleagues understood the importance of staying on the good side of the councilman from CD 14, who could guide their pet projects smoothly (or not) through his committee.
“He’s gone from being one of the most influential councilmembers to being one of the least influential,” says one former Los Angeles City councilman, who asked not to be named because of the ongoing investigations. “He’s toxic.”
At the same time, city records show that Huizar’s attendance at the council’s thrice-weekly meetings has been spotty. Since November 7, he has been absent for all or part of 60% of the body’s meetings – sometimes showing up for the roll call but leaving during certain votes. Those have included matters directly affecting his district, ranging from street lighting improvements to a major Civic Center development.
To be sure, Huizar and his staff have continued to promote issues important to him, his district and beyond. On February 26, for instance, the City Council approved a recommendation from the Homelessness and Poverty Committee—from which Huizar was removed—for a downtown emergency housing facility that the councilman had championed.
Still, there’s little doubt that Huizar has been damaged, politically and personally. As the FBI investigation continues—no arrests or charges have thus far been made—two lawsuits against Huizar by two female ex-staffers are also making their way through the courts.
In the suits, filed just weeks before the FBI searches, the women claim that Huizar retaliated against them after they complained to supervisors that his alleged affair with an aide was disrupting the office. They also claim that staffers were compelled to work on non-city business for the councilman.
Huizar has called the allegations “nonsense” and “crazy.”
What’s a constituent to think?
So what do these new political realities mean for Huizar’s constituents? Are they being deprived of opportunities to grab his ear and shape his thinking at neighborhood gatherings and events? Have they lost a forceful voice on their behalf in City Hall?
The Boulevard Sentinel posed those questions to Huizar’s office, which declined to provide specific responses. Instead, it offered this statement:
“The Councilmember continues to be fully engaged in his Council District and City issues. The Councilmember and his staff are focused daily on providing services to the constituents of Council District 14 and advocating on their behalf. Throughout his term, the Councilmember has brought millions of dollars to his district for various projects and improvements and will continue to do so.”
The Boulevard Sentinel also reached out to longtime, local public policy experts for their insights.
Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson, a former president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission who specializes in governance and electoral issues, suggests that Huizar’s situation “could go both ways for constituents.”
On the one hand, she says, it’s bad for constituents because Huizar now has less power than other councilmembers to further his district’s interests. But there’s another way to look at it, she says, “a contrarian view.”
If federal authorities move against Huizar for allegedly trading his City Hall influence for various forms of financial contributions from special interests, then his constituents already were being ill-served, she says.
And in that case, Levinson says, “it’s a win for constituents to give someone else that decision-making authority. Frankly, you’d want someone from a different district with that power.”
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles, says there’s no question Huizar’s removal from the land use committee is a blow to his legislative influence.
But with Huizar’s council term ending in 2020, Sonenshein says, the councilman already was facing “a budding irrelevance,” which was reinforced when the FBI searches prompted his wife, Richelle Huizar, to abandon her campaign for the seat and end the prospect of a Huizar dynasty.
Sonenshein says it might have been “a catastrophe” for the district had Huizar become mired in the federal investigation earlier in his 13-year council career, leaving his constituents to lament: “We just voted for you and now the whole thing’s a mess.”
Instead, any harm will be over relatively quickly in a district that represents “the historic base of Latino politics in California,” Sonenshein says. “This isn’t about being disenfranchised, as the Latino community was for years.”
Sonenshein notes that the campaign to succeed Huizar already is picking up steam, as evidenced by the recent high-profile candidacy of former State Senate President Tempore Kevin de León for the seat that, before Huizar, was held by Antonio Villaraigosa, who went on to become the mayor of Los Angeles.
As for Huizar’s disappearance from community meetings and events, Sonenshein says the councilman “probably doesn’t want to be asked a lot of questions he doesn’t want to answer.”
Whatever the reasons, his sudden disengagement “is not a great outcome for constituents,” says governance expert Levinson. “I think they’re entitled to a certain amount of contact and access,” she says. “That way they know that their representative is part of the community and feels their pain. It’s a way to build faith in government.”
And it’s essential not just for the public but also for the public servant.
“If you don’t have that kind of interaction, you’re increasingly flying blind,” says the former councilman who asked not to be identified. “When you’re in the community, you hear unfiltered information about what’s concerning people. You don’t get that from focus groups or polls. The less you’re out there, the more isolated you become.”
Bringing down the curtain on Night on Broadway
Nowhere has Huizar’s withdrawal from the public spotlight been more conspicuous, and more disappointing to Angelenos across the city, than in the councilman’s abrupt cancellation of one of his signature successes—Night on Broadway.
It serves as a vivid example of how even the councilman’s most far-reaching undertakings in neighborhoods throughout the district can be quickly undermined by his current predicament.
Huizar launched Night on Broadway, a free arts and music festival, in 2015 as part of his ambitious initiative to revitalize the Broadway corridor in downtown Los Angeles. So far, the initiative has led to a stunning restoration of six historic theaters, among other improvements.
The first year, Night on Broadway drew an estimated crowd of 35,000. Just four years later, in 2018, some 250,000 people surged into downtown for the one-night January festival.
Hopes were high among organizers and vendors for a turnout this year that would bring even more festival-goers to Broadway—and even more dollars to venues spread across 10 city blocks. As the councilman himself wrote in a November 6 Twitter posting—one day before the FBI searches—“this year is going to be bigger and better than ever!”
Instead, just weeks later, Huizar pulled the plug on the event that had prominently featured his name.
“The whole thing really makes me very sad,” says Patti Berman, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. “I think people are very disappointed.”
But with so many uncertainties swirling around the councilman’s office and future, Berman thinks the cancellation “was the prudent thing to do.”
Although Huizar’s office provided no explanation for backing out, the timing apparently was not lost on many would-be attendees, judging from their comments on Night on Broadway’s Facebook page.
As one unhappy commenter observed: “Political casualty…We all lose.”
Joel Sappell, a former reporter and editor for the L.A. Times, lives in Eagle Rock. Laura Brady-Allen is a contributor for the Boulevard Sentinel.