Los Angeles City Councilmember-elect Eunisses Hernandez, who unseated incumbent Gil Cedillo in June to represent Council District 1, spoke recently with Ava LaLonde, a freshman at Occidental College and a participant in the Boulevard Sentinel/Occidental Neighborhood Reporting Partnership.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
THE PATH TO POLITICS
Growing up in Highland Park as the daughter of Mexican migrants, Hernandez, 32, said she was painfully aware of the struggles faced by her family and friends.
“A lot of my loved ones and friends were criminalized because of a lack of access to stable housing and mental health services,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to be a cop growing up because I thought that I could have been the cop that would have helped my friends.”
She ditched that idea while attending Cal State Long Beach, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“My criminological theory class converted me into saying, ‘I can’t become a cop,’ because I was not going to be able to fix the system from the inside,” Hernandez said. “The system is not built to address these issues.”
After college, she distinguished herself through her work on policy issues related to community investment and incarceration alternatives. Her efforts include co-founding La Defensa, a leading organization in the movement to reduce the prison population and help progressive lawyers become judges in L.A. County.
ON THE ISSUES
Gentrification: “There are different levels of policy that we can work on to try to prevent the further displacement of folks,” Hernandez said. “One is definitely renter protections and having stronger political and public education on renter’s rights.”
Hernandez was a strong supporter of Measure ULA, or United to House LA, on the November ballot. The measure, which is on track to pass, will raise money for housing and tenant protections by taxing real estate sales of more than $5 million.
The police and public safety: “The safest communities don’t have the most cops,” Hernandez said. “The safest communities have the most resources.”
Hernandez connected police reform to other pressing issues by noting that resources that go for policing could instead be used for addressing environmental degradation in poor communities, increasing city services and helping the mentally ill via greater access to Mental Health Crisis Response Teams.
On environmental justice, Hernandez said she sees two ways to ameliorate the harm caused by the district’s 700 oil wells.
“One is through the cleaning up and remediation of the land where oil wells sit,” Hernandez said. “The second way is a just transition with the criminal justice system. How do we begin to transfer jobs out of law enforcement responses into responses that will prevent harm and keep us safe?”
Racism in L.A: “We’ll have to continually figure out how we will not allow for racist policies to keep moving forward, particularly those that impact predominantly Black communities,” said Hernandez. “As a Latina woman, I feel like I have a heavy responsibility to make sure that any anti-blackness and other ‘isms’ that come up are immediately addressed.”
Healing rifts between Black and Latino Angelenos has become imperative since October, when four Latino leaders were caught on tape using racist language to express an us-versus-them mindset. Hernandez is one of many elected leaders to call for the four to resign. So far, City Council President Nury Martinez and labor union leader Ron Herrera have resigned. Gil Cedillo has not resigned but will be replaced by Hernandez in December. Councilmember Kevin de León (CD 14) has refused to resign.
USING POLITICAL POWER
Hernandez will be one of five new members on the 15-member City Council, the most newcomers since 2013. Her views align with those of Councilmember Nithya Raman (CD 5) and Councilmember-elect Hugo Soto-Martinez (CD 13); together, the three will form a left wing on the council.
“We need eight votes on the city council to move policy,” Hernandez said. “In the city of LA, we have a weak mayor, strong council system. If we’re strong on the council, we have a strong fighting chance. The mayor will just be a figurehead.”
Hernandez also said she wants to increase public access to City Council meetings by expanding translation options and explaining in detail the reasons for council decisions.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
Hernandez said she has often been compared to a young Gil Cedillo but that the Cedillo of today is not the same person he was on his way up the political ladder.
“The frustrating part is that I appreciate the work he’s done since I know that he has paved the way for people like me and others to run,” Hernandez said. “But at some point, we have to recognize that these people are no longer the people they were 10 or 15 years ago and that is very problematic.”
Hernandez said that her goal is not to be a politician forever but to craft the next group of future leaders.
“Part of my job is to build the bench of the next people,” Hernandez said. “People who understand that we need to dig in our heels and put people over profit, people over politics. And [people] who understand the ways in which you can build community power so that you don’t need to rely on special interest groups or dirty money to get you into those seats.”