Scandal-plagued LA City Council deeply unpopular; voters have faith in Bass, poll finds

If the last week was any indication, Mayor Karen Bass starts her tenure with the wind at her back.

A clear indicator came when her campaign promise to declare a state of emergency on homelessness made its way through the City Council and was embraced by a body normally reluctant to relinquish power. Council members’ approval provided the mayor with expanded control over the city’s response to the homelessness crisis.

That early win for Bass reflects a political reality highlighted by a new poll of city voters: The mayor has more support than does the council, and a objection of voters believe she can address the city’s problems with homelessness and housing,

The poll found that the 15-member City Council is deeply unpopular after several years of scandals, indictments, trials and, this fall, the release of a recording of three council members making racist comments in a private meeting. A suspended member awaits trial. Two former members have either pleaded guilty or await trial themselves. Two incumbents lost their seats this year on the wave of discontent stemming from the city’s inability to adequately address the homelessness crisis.

The poll is generally favorable for Bass, but also highlights some potential weaknesses, especially on issues of crime and public safety.

Nearly half of voters, 47%, have a favorable view of Bass, compared with 27% who have an unfavorable view, the new poll found. That’s consistent with previous surveys that have shown remarkable consistency in voters’ view of Bass throughout the election year.

Majorities also believe that Bass can make progress toward some of her goals, especially around race relations and bringing the city together.

Black voters appeared most optimistic about the state of the city and the prospects for Bass, who is only the second Black mayor in Los Angeles history. Asian and Pacific American voters had the least favorable impression of Bass and were the most likely to say they did not have an opinion of her, a weak spot that was evident during her campaign.

By contrast to the generally favorable view of Bass, just 30% of LA voters had a favorable view of the council, while half were unfavorable.

The California Community poll, conducted Nov. 28 to Dec. 12, which was sponsored by three community organizations — the Los Angeles Urban League, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality and the Center for Asians United for Self-Empowerment — and was developed in consultation with Times reporters and editors.

The poll’s findings are generally positive for the new mayor, even though a majority of voters, 51%, said the city is on the wrong track, compared with 39% who said the city is heading in the right direction.

“Not only does she have honeymoon-high poll numbers, but the City Council is held in very low regard. She couldn’t ask for a better political landscape,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley and helped direct the survey.

“That honeymoon gives her tremendous leverage with the council,” he added.

Compared with many other big-city executives, Los Angeles mayors have less direct political power, Schnur said.

“The mayor’s greatest weapon is the bully pulpit, and the best way to move the City Council is to demonstrate that their constituents are supporting your goals,” he said.

Bass swept into office partially because voters believed she was best positioned to overcome divisions among races and communities in the city. Fifty-five percent of voters in the new poll said they believed she will bring together LA’s diverse communities, while 51% said she would improve race relations. Just over 1 in 4 voters said they believed she will worsen the city on these two fronts.

Similarly, by 47% to 36%, voters said she will improve the city’s problems with housing and by 46% to 42% they expected she can improve the homelessness problem.

On crime and public safety, however, just 40% said Bass’ policies would improve the city, while 43% said those policies would worsen the problem. White voters were most likely to say she would not improve the city in this respect, while Black voters were more optimistic.

While Bass’ popularity gives her leverage over the unpopular City Council, she would lack that edge in any potential dispute with the Los Angeles police. By 55% to 33%, voters have a favorable image of the LAPD.

White and Latino voters were more likely to have a favorable view of the department than Black voters, the survey found.

The mayor, who began his career as an activist protesting police abuse, carefully avoided disputes with the LAPD so far.

“I think her relationship with LAPD is still a question mark. It’s a lot of work to move that needle,” said Michael Lawson, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Urban League, who also serves on Bass’ transition advisory team.

“The LAPD is a hard nut to crack,” he said.

Bass has called for more community safety partnerships and been resolute in saying the Los Angeles Police Department should not shrink, but grow. Throughout the campaign, she said the department should return to its allotted level of 9,700 sworn officers by hiring more civilian workers to free officers to return to patrol duties. The number of sworn officers is now about 9,200.

“We must stop crimes in progress and hold people accountable,” Bass said at her inauguration. “Some neighborhoods have asked for additional officers, and we will deliver. But what neighborhoods are asking for, and what they need is as diverse as our city.”

The poll comes after a year that highlighted racial and ethnic divisions.

Those hit a peak with the council audio tape, which rocked the city.

The tape, which became public in October, recorded a 2021 meeting at which then-Council President Nury Martinez, along with members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, sat down with labor leader Ron Herrera to strategize over redrawing council district boundaries to enhance Latino political power. The discussion included derogatory remarks about Black, Jewish, Armenian, Indigenous and gay people.

Martinez and Herrera resigned. Cedillo had already lost his race and disappeared from public view. Just last week he emerged with his first extensive comments since The Times first reported on the leaked tapes, claiming he was a victim of “cancel culture” and a “modern version of McCarthyism.”

De León has dug in, refusing to step down and returning to meetings even as he’s dogged by activists at every public event.

The poll indicates, however, that much of the council’s unpopularity with voters stems from factors other than this most recent scandal. About 4 in 10 Black and Latino voters expressed an unfavorable view of the council, as did 3 in 10 Asian American voters. That rose to 6 in 10 among white voters. White conservatives were the most likely to view the council negatively.

The poll found that about 60% of Los Angeles voters judged the state of race relations in the city and California at large as either fair or poor. That number fluctuated slightly by race but was broadly constant. Latinos, Black people and Asians surveyed were much more likely than white voters to say that they were the targets of discrimination as well.

Voters across races were far more positive about the state of race relations in their respective communities. About 60% said that in their neighborhoods, race relations were either excellent or good.

“There is a lot of awareness that there are some problems, but there’s also a lot of support for the ways in which those challenges can be addressed,” said Charlie Woo, the chief executive of Megatoys, board chairman of the Center for Asians United for self-empowerment and a long-term force in city politics.

That was a sentiment expressed by representatives from each of the three groups that sponsored the poll.

In the aftermath of the City Council tape scandal, many politicians, editorial boards and good-government groups have proposed expanding the council, arguing that having members represent smaller districts would make them more responsive to constituents. The survey found broad support for such a move without specifying a size. About 60% of voters supported expansion, with 24% opposed. The rest were undecided or said they didn’t know.

Still, while the measure tests well now as an abstract proposition, voters may feel differently after hearing conflicting arguments in a campaign. Relatively few Angelenos have spent much time thinking about the pros and cons, even as expanding the council has been much discussed in political circles in the aftermath of The Times’ reporting on tapes.

“As opposed to saying, people aren’t engaged. I think people are engaged, but they’re so engaged in trying to just survive sometimes,” said Helen Torres, chief executive of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality.

“I think it’s going to be a heavy lift,” she added. “If there is a direction and a movement towards expanding the City Council, or redoing how we’re thinking about redistricting, it has to be coupled with true investment in community engagement.”

The California Community Poll was conducted by Strategies 360, a polling and research firm, which surveyed 1,005 Los Angeles registered voters drawn from an online survey panel. Respondents were surveyed in English and Spanish. The poll’s credibility interval, the equivalent of margin of error for panel-based polls, was 3.1 percentage points in either direction for the full sample.

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