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California attorney general investigating LA redistricting

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — California’s attorney general said Wednesday that he will investigate Los Angeles’ redistricting process as three of its City Council members face calls to resign after a recording surfaced of them using racist language to mock colleagues while they schemed to protect Latino political strength in council districts.

The move by Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat like the three council members, comes amid growing calls to address the way politics can still influence the redrawing of district maps after the census count each decade.

“My office will conduct an investigation into the city of LA’s redistricting process,” Bonta said, without providing many details. “We’re going to gather the facts, we’re going to work to determine the truth and take action as necessary to ensure the fair application of our laws.”

“It’s clear an investigation is sorely needed to help restore confidence in the redistricting process for the people of LA,” he added.

He said the results could potentially bring civil or criminal results.

“It could lead to criminality if that’s where the facts and the law dictate,” he said. “There’s certainly the potential for civil liability based on civil rights and voting rights laws here in the state of California.”

He said the process “is just starting and we don’t like to make conclusions first and get facts later.” The investigation will determine the outcome, he said, but he noted it could also lead to changes in policy at the state or local level.

Bonta spoke in Los Angeles while the council itself was trying to conduct business nearby despite the uproar triggered by a leaked recording of crude, racist comments from a nearly year-old meeting, which also provided an unvarnished look into City Hall’s racial rivalries. Those involved in the meeting were all Latinos, while Bonta is the first Filipino American to hold the top law enforcement job in the nation’s most populous state.

Three council members — former City Council President Nury Martinez, who is taking a leave of absence, and Councilmen Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo — are facing calls from President Joe Biden to resign after a recording surfaced of them participating in the closed-door meeting.

LA City Council in turmoil after racist audio leak
Outraged protesters called for the resignation of three Los Angeles City Councilmembers after audio of them making racist remarks leaked. The private, recorded remarks by councilmembers Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon included mocking the Black son of a white councilman and redistricting the city along politically beneficial lines. (Oct. 11)

The council reconvened Wednesday, possibly to censure the three members, with the minimum of 10 out of 15 members necessary for a quorum but was unable to do business because a crowd of protesters chanted slogans such as, “No resignation, shut it down.” The acting council president eventually announced that there was no longer a quorum and adjourned the meeting.

A Tuesday meeting was nearly derailed when a raucous crowd of protesters packed the chamber.

The council cannot expel the members — it can only suspend a member when criminal charges are pending. A censure does not result in suspension or removal from office.

Martinez said in the recorded conversation that white council member Mike Bonin handled his young Black son as if he were an “accessory” and said of his son “Parece changuito,” or “he’s like a monkey,” the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday. She also referred to Bonin as a “little bitch.”

At another point on the hourlong recording, Martinez, the first Latina appointed president of the City Council, called indigenous immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca ugly, and made crass remarks about Jews and Armenians.

The discussion — which also included a powerful Latino labor leader, who has since resigned — centered on protecting Latino political power during the redrawing of council district boundaries, known as redistricting. The once-a-decade process can pit one group against another to gain political advantage in future elections.

Martinez stepped down from the leadership job and apologized Monday, saying she was ashamed of her racially offensive language in the year-old recording. However, she did not resign her council seat. She announced Tuesday that “I need to take a leave of absence and take some time to have an honest and heartfelt conversation with my family, my constituents, and community leaders.”

In emotional remarks at Tuesday’s meeting, Bonin said he was deeply wounded by the taped discussion. He lamented the harm to his young son and the fact that the city was in international headlines spotlighting the racist language. “I’m sickened by it,” he said, calling again for his colleagues’ resignations.

“Los Angeles is going to heal,” he said at one point. “I want to lead with love.”

Black and Latino constituents often build alliances in politics. But tensions and rivalries among groups separated by race, geography, partisanship or religion have a long history in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country. The friction can cross into housing, education and jobs — even prisons — as well as the spoils of political power.

The California Legislative Black Caucus said the recording “reveals an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process.”

In one of the most diverse cities in the nation, a long line of public speakers at the meeting said the disclosure of the secretly taped meeting brought with it echoes of the Jim Crow era, and was a stark example of “anti-Blackness.”

There were calls for investigations, and reforming redistricting policy.

Many of the critics also were Latino, who spoke of being betrayed by their own leaders.

Candido Marez, 70, a retired business owner, said he wasn’t surprised by Martinez’s language, who is known for being blunt and outspoken.

“Her words blew up this city. It is disgraceful,” he said. “She must resign.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that the recording was posted on Reddit by a now-suspended user. It is unclear who recorded the audio, who uploaded it to Reddit and whether anyone else was present.

Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the president wanted Martinez, de Leon and Cedillo to resign.

“The language that was used and tolerated during that conversation was unacceptable, and it was appalling. They should all step down,” Jean-Pierre said.

Other calls for the council members to resign have come from across the Democratic establishment, including from U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso and members of the council.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has stopped short of doing so, denouncing the racist language and saying he was “encouraged that those involved have apologized and begun to take responsibility for their actions.” Democratic state Sen. Steven Bradford, who represents parts of Los Angeles County, said Newsom should call for the resignation of the three council members.

“Every ethnic caucus in the Legislature has called for the resignations, so I would hope that the governor would … ask for the resignation as well,” Bradford said.

Council member Mitch O’Farrell, serving as acting president of the council, said the city cannot heal if the three remain in office. He called it a “clear abuse of power” that was “profoundly unacceptable” of elected officials.

“Public opinion has rendered a verdict and the verdict is they all must resign,” he said.

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Pence: ‘Mistakes were made’ in classified records handling

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MIAMI (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that he takes “full responsibility” after classified documents were found at his Indiana home.

In his first public comments since the discovery, Pence said he hadn’t been aware that the documents were in his residence but acknowledged his lack of awareness wasn’t an excuse.

“Let me be clear: Those classified documents should not have been in my personal residence,” Pence said at Florida International University, where he was talking about the economy and promoting his new book, “So Help Me God.” “Mistakes were made, and I take full responsibility.”

The discovery made public by Pence’s team earlier this week marked the latest in a string of recoveries of sensitive papers from the homes of current and former top U.S. officials. The Department of Justice was already investigating the discovery of classified documents in former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and at President Joe Biden’s home in Delaware and his former Washington office.

Pence’s public acceptance of responsibility over his handling of the documents marks a departure from the reactions of both Trump, his former boss, and Biden in their own cases. Trump denounced the search of Mar-a-Lago as “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history” and suggested without evidence that investigators may have planted the documents. Biden has said he was surprised to learn the documents had been found but had “no regrets” about how the public was informed.

The discovery of documents at Pence’s home came five months after he told The Associated Press that he did not take classified records with him when he left the vice presidency. “No, not to my knowledge,” he said when asked if he had retained any such information.

The comment — which would typically be unremarkable for a former vice president — was notable at the time given that FBI agents had seized classified and top secret information from Trump’s Florida estate on Aug. 8 while investigating potential violations of three different federal laws. Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents were “all declassified.”

Pence said he decided to undertake the search of his home “out of an abundance of caution” after recent disclosures by Biden’s team that documents were found at his former office and in his Delaware home.

He said he had directed his counsel to work with the National Archives, Department of Justice and Congress and fully cooperate in any investigation.

The former vice president said national security depends on the proper handling of classified documents, but he hopes that people realize that he acted swiftly to correct the error.

“We acted above politics and put national interests first,” he said.

Pence, who remains estranged from Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is considering a 2024 White House challenge to his former boss, who announced his campaign in November. Biden has said he intends to seek reelection in 2024, though he has yet to officially kick off his campaign.

Referring to a possible White House bid, Pence said he has been reflecting on the challenges the nation has. He said many accomplishments have been “dismantled” by the Biden administration, highlighting problems with immigration and the economy.

“We are giving powerful considerations on what might be next for us,” he said. “I am going to continue to travel all across this country. I am going to continue to listen and to reflect.”

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Michigan Democrats pass over $1 billion in spending

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Legislature will set aside $200 million dollars out of its about $1 billion in spending for a paper mill in the Upper Peninsula, while also setting aside more money for the state’s economic development fund.

The spending legislation, which was passed late Thursday night by the newly Democrat-controlled Legislature, includes a $946 million spending plan and an additional $146 million to close out last year’s budget, bringing the total spending to nearly $1.1 billion.

Nearly $200 million in grant funding will be set aside for upgrades at the Escanaba Mill, located in the Upper Peninsula and operated by Swedish paper producer Billerud. The company is looking to begin making a more technologically advanced paper product that will be used as packaging for pharmaceuticals and healthcare, cosmetics and drinks.

The funding for the Escanaba Mill comes after the Michigan Strategic Fund approved a 15-year tax break last month to support Billerud’s planned project at the paper mill, which is expected to bring in nearly $1 billion in investments from the Swedish company and retain at least 1,240 jobs in the region.

The passage of the supplemental budget Thursday came one day after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered a State of the State speech that focused heavily on economic development and keeping jobs in the state.

Rep. Jenn Hill of Marquette called the paper mill project a “generational investment” and said that after the Lower Peninsula received multiple economic development projects last year, it was time for the Upper Peninsula “to have a turn.”

“The governor talked last night about providing young people with a reason to stay in Michigan. A big part of that is economic opportunity,” said Hill. “Let’s invest in the Upper Peninsula and the future of green manufacturing in our state.”

The bill also gives an additional $150 million for Michigan’s Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve, which brings the total remaining balance of the fund to $890 million.

Republicans criticized the late-night spending bill as being rushed and secretive. Rep. Mike Harris of Clarkston said that Democrats planned the bill “behind closed doors” and “waited until the last minute to make this public.”

“Democrats are starting their new majority by shoving an enormous, secret spending bill down the throats of the people of Michigan,” House Republican Leader Matt Hall said in a statement. “They gave the public and their elected representatives virtually no time to read the ridiculously over-stuffed plan before the vote.”

During December’s lame duck session, talks between Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature stalled before any supplemental budget could be passed. Democrats took full control of both chambers this year and a budget surplus that was projected to grow to over $9 billion by fall.

The Democratic-led Legislature also worked Thursday to pass tax relief that includes increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to a 30% match of the federal credit, compared with 6% currently, and a retirement tax repeal. Final passage of both bills is expected sometime next week.

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S. Dakota Senate suspends lawmaker after vaccine exchange

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Thursday suspended a Republican state senator in a rare move that stripped the lawmaker of all legislative power while keeping the allegations against her a secret.

Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, who is among a group of right-wing Statehouse Republicans, told reporters earlier Thursday that she was being punished following an exchange she had with a legislative aide about vaccinations.

Sen. Michael Rohl, the Republican lawmaker who initiated the motion to suspend Frye-Mueller, said in a statement that it was based on “serious allegations” and had been made to ensure the Legislature was creating a safe work environment for employees. He likened the Senate’s suspension to the move a business owner or human resources department would make when allegations are raised.

“The Senate will operate swiftly and diligently through the process of an investigation and provide the opportunity for due process to all parties involved,” Rohl said.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-6 to form a committee to investigate Frye-Mueller’s conduct and in the meantime suspend her from voting or holding other rights of an elected official. Republican legislative leaders refused to comment Thursday on the allegations that led to them suspending the Senate rules and stripping their colleague of her ability to represent her constituents.

The Senate Republican leader, Sen. Casey Crabtree said the legislative punishment was “brought after a lot of serious thought,” but offered little else on the allegations. Another high-ranking Republican, Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, said it was meant to “protect the decorum” of the law-making body.

Schoenbeck removed Frye-Mueller from two committee assignments on Wednesday.

One of Frye-Mueller’s Senate allies, Sen. Tom Pischke, spoke against the suspension, saying it was based on a “she said-she said situation” and would deprive Frye-Mueller’s constituents of their representation in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who serves as the Senate’s president, also opposed the move, cautioning against the precedent of suspending an elected representative without due process. But his objections were overruled in a two-thirds majority vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republicans in the Legislature have become deeply divided in recent years. One of the battlegrounds between right-wing members and Republicans who support the political establishment has been over separate proposals to limit requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine and childhood vaccines.

Frye-Mueller said she did not bring up the COVID-19 vaccine during her exchange with the aide and that she has not been formally presented with the allegations against her.

“I have a right to defend myself,” Frye-Mueller said before the Senate’s vote Thursday.

After the vote succeeded, she exited the Senate chamber.

Childhood vaccines have long been celebrated as public health success stories, but vaccination rates among kindergarteners have dropped nationwide in recent years. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that decreased confidence in vaccines is a likely contributor, as well as disruptions to routine health care during the pandemic.

Falling vaccination rates open the door to outbreaks of diseases once thought to be in the rearview mirror, experts say.

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