Just minutes after a 20-count indictment was announced against L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas —alleging conspiracy, wire and mail fraud in an alleged quid pro quo scheme to get his son into USC in exchange for steering lucrative contracts to the university— fellow city councilmember Joe Buscaino sent out a tweet calling for his resignation, followed by a public statement hours later by Council president Nury Martinez that the City Council would need to take “appropriate action”.
Two days after the indictment—and several days before his official arraignment—there was speculation about what would become of the many sites and L.A. landmarks named for the councilman and serve as a testament to his three-plus decades of public service.
And just hours before he could enter a not guilty plea in federal court, Ridley-Thomas had been stripped of his duties, salary and benefits as the duly elected councilmember representing L.A.’s Tenth District, which includes Koreatown, Leimert Park, Gramercy Park, Mid-City, Wilshire Center, Arlington Heights and the Baldwin Village.
“We are acting … too early without consideration of our full range of options and with too much uncertainty before us,” Councilman Mike Bonin said following the motion to suspend Ridley-Thomas, made by Council president Nury Martinez and seconded by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. “The allegations are only a week old.
“Having known Mr. Ridley-Thomas for 30 years,” Bonin continued, “I think it is important to give him the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to defend himself before we rush to judgment.”
“Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has a right to due process, and that should take place in a court of law, not in these council chambers,” stated Councilmember Curren Price. “I refuse to slaughter the reputation of someone who has a [long] track record of public service.”
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who also spoke against the motion, pointed out in an interview with KCRW that multiple members of the council knew about the allegations against Ridley-Thomas two years ago and still endorsed him when he ran for District 10.
“When there’s a political opportunity to kick him, they are happy to kick him,” said the councilman who has publicly made note of others at LA City Hall who’ve faced federal investigations without suspension.
Hoping to avert the move, Ridley-Thomas penned a letter days before to his fellow city councilmembers offering to step back, though not resigning the seat.
“I fully appreciate the importance of the Council being able to conduct its business with minimal distractions,” Ridley-Thomas wrote. “With that in mind, and with deep respect for each of you, I write to let you know of my intention to immediately step back from participating in both full Council and Committee meetings.”
In a letter to the City Council prior to the vote, Micheal Proctor, the attorney for Ridley-Thomas urged councilmembers to either deny or remove from consideration the motion.
“There is no basis for invoking Section 211 because it is undisputed that Councilmember Ridley-Thomas is not being accused of a crime that relates to a violation of his official duties as a Councilmember,” Proctor wrote.
“Moreover, there are significant differences between this accusation and those against previous Councilmembers who have been indicted of crimes,” Proctor continued. “Unlike the others, the allegations against Councilmember Ridley-Thomas, which are false and will be refuted, make no assertion that he had received any personal gain. Furthermore, the contracts which are the subject of alleged wrongdoing were not doled out in a back room. They were standard contracts voted on in full view of the public and approved by the full Board of Supervisors. After allegations were first made, in 2018, the County of Los Angeles went back and did a comprehensive review to ensure that there was no wrongdoing, and indeed none was found.”
Following the vote, the L.A. native issued a statement stating that he was humbled by those who supported him and disappointed by those who didn’t.
“Eleven members of this Council have stripped the constituents of the 10th District of their representation, of their voice and of their right to the services that they deserve,” the statement read. “They have removed from action a member – and his team – who together are among the most productive and effective advocates on the crisis of homelessness. I will continue fighting to clear my name, and I remain confident that such will be the case. But in the interim, the council has disenfranchised the residents of the 10th District.”
The residents responded with an outpouring of letters and phone calls to the City Council as well as a rally downtown at City Hall with residents and supporters chanting “You stole our vote” as members of the L.A. City Council as they approached the parking entrance at City Hall in advance of a subsequent council meeting.
Harry McElroy, president of the Hepburn Avenue Block Club was one of them.
“Elected officials always claim they want to follow constitutional law,” McElroy said. “One of the foundations of our constitutional government is the fact that you’re innocent until proven guilty and here is a prime example where a body moves to basically punish somebody ahead of a trial, particularly when you take a person’s pay and healthcare insurance. That is a total punishing act.
“This is political expediency. A lot of them benefit from a weakened Mark Ridley-Thomas as councilman. That’s what this is all about. It’s a political act.”
Charles Johnson, senior pastor of the Cochran Avenue Baptist which is located in the Tenth District, rallied not only in solidarity but out of concern for the lack of representation in his district.
“Our entire church community is up in arms,” Johnson reported. “We have so many extenuating conditions and situations that require attention right now, and it’s unfair that as of this moment, we are unrepresented. That should never happen in this city.
Downtown Crenshaw co-founder Damion Goodmon, who has butted heads with Ridley-Thomas in the past, characterized the suspension as “coldblooded”.
“They could have at least waited until the man had entered his plea,” Goodmon observed. “But it’s not about Mark, it’s about the 260,000 residents in the Tenth District who are now left without representation and that includes me. Whether you like Mark Ridley-Thomas or not, the City Council should have—at a minimum—articulated the process for adequate representation in the Tenth District. We can’t be down a councilmember as they’re drawing redistricting lines for the next ten years.”
Since his first election to the L.A. City Council in 1991, the now 66-year old seasoned politician—who has served on the City Council, the State Senate and California Assembly before spending 12 years on the Board of Supervisors— has helped to shape the political landscape of the city and particularly South L.A. and has been a keen tactician in fighting for—and seeing that others addressed— the issues of African Americans and communities of color.
“Our neighborhood has begun to make changes, positive movements for us as a group. We were getting the support we needed, and I think it’s important that we have his ability to help us keep the tenth district moving forward as it is an historical district, important in many ways to the overall area,” said Donna Jones, who serves as acting chair of the West Adams Neighborhood Association.
Jones was one of the more than two dozen Tenth District stakeholders—including actress Debbie Allen and Norn Nixon– who fired off a letter to the City Council expressing their shock and horror regarding the council’s “hasty action” to suspend Ridley-Thomas.
“Our parents and grandparents, and many of us, fought for our right to vote,”
the letter read. “This right is one we hold as sacred, as it allows us to meaningfully participate in a democratic society. Less than a year ago, 61% of voters in the 10th District elected Councilmember Ridley-Thomas. Your move to recklessly remove him from office, without even providing him with the opportunity to defend himself, or for the residents and stakeholders of the 10th District to meaningfully weigh in, reveals that the democratic principles of which our society is based now ring hollow for the 11 members of the Council.
“Please do the right thing and reverse course,” the letter concluded.
In the meantime, a team of well-known lawyers, is exploring all legal remedies available to right what they view as an unconstitutional wrong.
Leading the team is John Sweeney.
Said Sweeney, “There is no question that in suspending Councilmember Mark Riley-Thomas, the City Council’s behavior was not only outrageous, but it was also calculated to disempower the most effective member of that body. I also believe it was unconstitutional because it did afford him due process.”
Sweeney, who grew up in the Tenth District and says he knows what Ridley-Thomas has meant to the community.
“It is clear that the councilmember is the region’s leader on homelessness; he is the most knowledgeable about redistricting, and he has the strongest record on law enforcement reform. These issues are controversial, and only someone with the councilmember’s experience and leadership abilities can successfully address these important issues. Without his presence, his District and the entire city are at a disadvantage.”
There is no contesting the tremendous impact Ridley-Thomas has had in the community over his career in public office, from the re-opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital to leading the fight to pass Measure H, the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2017 that will raise $3.5 billion for homeless services through 2027; to his founding the Empowerment Congress, the region’s most successful initiative in neighborhood-based civic engagement.
“After 30 years of service, you don’t treat someone like this. You let them have their day in court,” maintains SCLC President and Pastor William Smart —who lives in the Tenth District.
“The city council was wrong and we’re not going to take this. They’ve pre-judged and they disrespected our district.”
Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the Baptist Minister’s Conference, called the suspension a “political hit job.’
“It’s ironic that Nury Martinez, who introduced the motion— wasn’t suspended when she was under investigation,” he said. “And Kevin de Leon was named in an FBI probe investigating whether or not he violated campaign rules several years ago.
“There are some racial overtones to what’s happening here.”
Pastor Welton Pleasant—who as president of the California State Baptist Convention, represents churches in the Tenth District—viewed the action taken by the city council as a form of voter suppression.
“Our vote has been disenfranchised through this process and it’s not fair to the citizens of District 10. America’s hallmark of democracy is the presumption of innocence,” Pleasant noted. “He has not been found guilty of anything so where is the presumption of innocence? It’s unfair that the City Council would rush to judgement and take away his right to make a living and we can’t let that stand.”
A legal defense fund has been set up to help offset attorney fees.
Both Pleasant and Tulloss were among 400 pastors, community leaders and residents who turned out for a Citywide Prayer Service for Ridley-Thomas.
“What does my presence mean at this meeting here tonight? It means I love Mark Ridley-Thomas,” Bishop Charles Blake said. “After doing so much for our city over so many years, there is no way we should allow him to have a challenge like this and not have the [faith] family to gather together…”
The event was organized by Pastor Xavier Thompson with the assistance of Bishop Noel Jones in just 72 hours following Ridley-Thomas’ indictment.
“This is not a matter of right or wrong, guilty or innocent,” stated Thompson, who serves as pastor of the Southern Missionary Baptist Church. “This is our own and we don’t abandon our family. The least we can do is come together and pray for our beloved public servant. I am aware of the 20-count federal indictment, but I’m going on record to say that the man I know is one of character. The man I know is integral who has been above board in all of his doings.
“An indictment is not a conviction,” Thompson added. “We’re innocent until proven guilty. So, I’m motivated by love to just rally the community and clergy and this is a unified effort— an effort of solidarity.”
Insiders say that the city council is considering names for an individual who could serve as caretaker for the district for the time being. Attorney Grace Yoo, who was soundly defeated by Ridley-Thomas for the seat in an election last year, has indicated she would accept an acting appointment, but as Councilman Harris-Dawson and others have pointed out, she has already been rejected by voters.
For Pastor Johnson, selecting a caretaker is not the answer.
“Sure, they can appoint someone to temporarily take over, but my vote is my voice,” he continued. “We don’t want a puppet leader. We deserve the right to choose who represents us and our choice is Mark Ridley-Thomas.”