Long Beach organizers see opportunity with new progressive City Council majority

By Jason Ruiz, Long Beach Post

Progressives won the day on Nov. 8.

The more liberal-leaning block on the City Council expanded from a 5-4 majority to a 6-3 majority, with one of the leading voices of this faction, Rex Richardson, becoming the mayor-elect.

This new power on the left could translate into renewed efforts by community organizers to phase out the city’s oil production faster, increase protections for the city’s most vulnerable renters and protect or expand guaranteed basic income programs. The wishlist is big, but how much can get accomplished is still a point of uncertainty.

“If you have a coalition and the mayor is on the side of that, ostensibly you should be able to get most of that done, but some priorities are going to be left on the table,” said Matt Lesenyie, a professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach.

Council incumbents Mary Zendejas and Roberto Uranga, both reliable votes for the progressive faction of the nine-person City Council, were both reelected in the June primary election.

Joni Ricks-Oddie, who’s served on the city’s Planning Commission and supported Richardson’s campaign, is on track to replace him as the North Long Beach councilmember in the 9th District.

Kristina Duggan, the more conservative candidate in the 3rd District is poised to replace Councilmember Suzie Price in the city’s 3rd District.

The biggest ideological shift is in the newly-formed 5th District, where Councilmember Stacy Mungo Flanigan, who often found herself on opposite ends of the progressive faction of the council on split votes, is likely to be replaced by LBUSD school board President Megan Kerr.

Both Kerr and Ricks-Oddie were endorsed by Richardson and their pending elections have given community organizers new hope for passing policies.

“I’m optimistic,” said James Suazo, executive director of Long Beach Forward, which advocates for lower-income residents. ”There’s a lot of opportunity here to really move beyond some tired rhetoric we’ve seen in the city. It’s not everything we want but it’s going to take time.”

Suazo cautioned though that “elections are easy; governing is hard.”

Even with the new majority, organizers are gearing up for an educational press for new members around the issues their communities have been fighting to make progress on for years.

Suazo’s group is part of a coalition of organizations that have advocated under the umbrella of the People’s Budget to make annual demands for projects and policies it believes the city should invest in.

This year it included universal legal representation for undocumented immigrants ($1 million) and a Multi-service Center satellite location ($3 million) to provide homeless services on the east side of the Los Angeles River, where people can more easily access them.

It also included loftier goals like a city-funded ongoing rental relief program ($10 million), a $197 million Black reparations fund and having the city fully fund the roughly $74 million it needs to cover its share of the costs for capping oil wells in the city.

Suazo thinks the guaranteed basic income pilot project, which will pay 250 single-parent households $500 per month for a year, should be expanded outside the 90813 ZIP code, one of the poorest in the city, and should be a permanent fixture for low-income families.

Kenny Allen, an organizer with Sunrise Movement Long Beach, a group focused on environmental justice, said it plans to continue to press for the city to speed up the phase-out of oil production.

The city says that it will end production by 2035, but Sunrise Movement and others have alleged that’s only because that’s when the industry would no longer be economically viable.

Allen said his group will work with new members and incumbents to take on smaller changes that they feel can help move toward their environmental goals like improving public transit through prioritizing routes through lower-resource areas of the city, building shade shelters at all stops and pivoting to a fare-free model.

“We really see that as a keystone issue that could make the rest of our climate goals easier,” Allen said.

Phasing out oil sooner could still be an uphill battle. The city has depended on oil revenue to boost its annual budget, and Allen said even if Kerr and Ricks-Oddie were open to it, it would likely be some time before they get their political footing on the council and the existing members haven’t prioritized the climate in the drastic way that Sunrise hoped.

Andre Donado, the project director at LiBRE, a tenant rights group, said they’re looking at increasing resources for those facing evictions and renter assistance to help keep some of the city’s most vulnerable renters in their homes and safe from displacement or becoming homeless.

“We don’t know how the economy is going to be next year,” Donado said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and people are still not finding jobs, still dealing with post-COVID consequences and for them, paying rent is difficult.”

The city had used state and federal COVID relief funds to create a $64 million rental relief program and later applied for a $13.1 million state loan to help more tenants pay rent and unpaid utilities. As of Monday, the city says it has paid out $66.8 million, a fraction of the nearly $230 million in aid requested.

Donado said housing groups could also look to things like community land trusts, where the city or tenants purchase buildings to help keep affordable units in place.

“A lot of the people who are newly homeless it’s because they can’t afford rent,” Donado said. “The solution right now is until we can build more housing is we need to keep people housed.”

The new council may have to temper its agenda even with a veto-proof majority, which it appears to have, said Lesenyie, the political science professor.

He compared the incoming council and mayor to the California legislature, where Democrats have three-fourths of the seats in both houses. Lesenyie said there were over 500 bills adopted by the legislature but noted Gov. Gavin Newsom didn’t sign all of them—and it wasn’t necessarily because he disagreed with them.

Strategically blocking things because they’re too liberal in an effort not to alienate reliable voters is something that could happen, Lesenyie said. There’s also the prospect that one of those “reliable votes” starts to pick fights to distinguish themselves among the group. But overall, this council should be able to get plenty done, he said.

“It should cause some accountability,” Lesenyie said. “When things are gridlocked, it’s hard to point the finger at who the problem is.”

But a majority with a mayor who sides with its politics could open the door for challengers in the future, Lesenyie said. They could do a fair amount of finger-pointing if things don’t improve over the next few years.

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