Column: A fading mural offers a warning to candidates seeking to replace Nury Martinez


It’s hard to figure out where the heart of a city council district is when its shape reminds you of brass knuckles.

That’s what passed through my mind as I crisscrossed District 6, the collection of San Fernando Valley neighborhoods once lorded over by Nury Martinez before her career imploded because of the racist things she said about Black people and Oaxacans on a leaked recording. On April 4, voters will choose her replacement from a field of seven first-time candidates.

The roster offers constituents a Choose Your Own Adventure that reflects a huge chunk of District 6’s dizzying diversity. Do they want another homegrown Mexican American to represent them in the form of Marisa Alcaraz, Imelda Padilla or Marco Santana? A Central American in Douglas Sierra? Do they want to go with an immigrant, Armenian-born Rose Grigoryan? A Black woman in Antoinette Scully? Pick Isaac Kim to sit alongside another Asian American, John Lee, and represent the Valley?

They have all participated in forums in person and online to try and appeal to voters. But Sierra, Grigoryan, Scully and Kim lag far behind in fundraising compared to Alcaraz, Padilla and Santana, who can each tap into different factions of L.A.’s political class.

Alcaraz is deputy chief of staff for South L.A. Councilmember Curren Price; Padilla is president of the L.A. Valley College Foundation board and a former organizer for Pacoima Beautiful, the community group where Martinez once served as executive director and which Padilla’s sister now runs. Santana was a former staffer for two Valley bigwigs, former state Sen. Bob Hertzberg and current Rep. Tony Cárdenas — though the latter recently endorsed Padilla.

If no one wins a majority of the votes cast, the top two finishers will move on to a June runoff. With so many competing yet intertwining narratives, there was no way I could find one spot that encompassed all the aspiring council members … or could I?

A dispensary and an Arco station greeted me at District 6’s eastern gateway, the 5 Freeway North Roscoe Boulevard exit in Sun Valley. I drove past modest single-family homes and industrial sections of the blue-collar Latino enclave as I headed toward Arleta’s residential niceness. Panorama City was a whirl of apartments, shopping plazas and strip malls. Van Nuys was more working class, while Lake Balboa was the one neighborhood where I sensed vestiges of the Valley’s history as the domain for L.A.’s white suburbanites.

Everywhere I went, I saw the best of Los Angeles — and the challenges for whomever ultimately ends up representing District 6.

Van Nuys Airport

A sign admonishes visitors to the Van Nuys Airport public observation area

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

There was a cornucopia of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants but not enough parks. I spotted Van Nuys Airport, which many residents want to shut down because of its noise and air pollution. I took a moment to offer a prayer at the Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City where my father went to claim the body of his cousin, who passed away from COVID-19 in 2020. I noticed no campaign signs among the dozens of posters on light poles with phone numbers in case you might want to sell your car or home.

My grand tour ended in North Hills, where Roscoe Boulevard meets the 405 Freeway. It’s a straight shot from here east and south through most of District 6. Within walking distance are job-makers such as Van Nuys Airport, the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the Galpin auto dealership empire.

A small homeless encampment stood on the sidewalk on Roscoe’s southern side. Also lounging around were something I didn’t expect: bears.

The mural “Bear Facts/Los Osos” was painted in 1999 on both sides of the 405 underpass by students from nearby James Monroe High School. It wasn’t the most inspiring thing I’ve seen, and it was partly obscured by the encampment’s tents, but I smiled. The bears slept. They hunted for salmon. They frolicked in snow, hung out in meadows, stood in the woods.

I’m no bear expert outside of Yogi and Care, but they looked like grizzlies to me. That’s when I thought of ex-Councilmember Martinez.

Before her downfall, she fashioned herself as the mama bear of the eastern San Fernando Valley — a no-nonsense native committed to uplifting a community she felt the rest of Los Angeles ignored and demeaned. The daughter of Mexican immigrants attended area schools from kindergarten through Cal State Northridge, then went from activist to bare-knuckled politician.

Her trajectory was fast and impressive: mayor of the city of San Fernando, Los Angeles Unified School District trustee, then a 2013 special election win to become District 6 council member. In 2020, she became the first Latina to serve as City Council president.

Though a Democrat, Martinez was unafraid to push back against progressives she felt were trying to impose their values on her Valley. When homeless advocates decried her 2021 vote to ban camping near schools as cruel, she swung back by saying that District 6 residents couldn’t show up to council meetings to voice their support because they were working.

“Latinos are frustrated; they’re tired,” Martinez told my colleague Benjamin Oreskes last fall. “They don’t want to deal with these encampments anymore.”

This was the Martinez on display during the infamous leaked tape — always for her constituents and Latino political power, always against anyone or anything that stood in her way, always her own worst enemy.

Her anti-Black barbs against rivals ranging from former L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin to L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón came during a conversation with ex-Councilmember Gil Cedillo, former Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, and current Councilmember Kevin de León. In the secretly recorded chat, each of them alleged a conspiracy that outsiders were trying to lessen Latino political power through redistricting.

At one point, Martinez complained about how proposed maps would take the Van Nuys Airport and the Anheuser-Busch brewery away from her district.

“What kind of districts are you trying to create?” she complained. “Because you’re taking away our assets. You’re just going to create poor Latino districts with nothing?”

In the end, those neighborhood institutions stayed.

If Martinez had shown any humility, she could’ve roared her way to higher political office. Instead, like the California maybe-grizzlies before me on Roscoe Boulevard, her career went extinct.

All the District 6 hopefuls should make a pilgrimage to the mural. They should ask the people at the encampment what help they need. They should figure out how to freshen up the bears, who — no pun intended — bear signs of fading away.

Then they should remember Martinez, like I did. All her tough talk against the homeless did little to solve the issue. Her Latino-first politicking has also gone extinct in a City Council where alliances are forming along class, not race, like never before.

And every night until election day, the council candidates should utter the following prayer, keeping Martinez and the mural in mind:

There but for the grace of God go we.


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