A conversation with District 13′s new City Councilmember, Hugo Soto-Martinez

We sat down with the progressive, new representative of LA’s District 13 -- which includes Silverlake, Echo Park and East Hollywood.

[City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez smiles while speaking with a street vendor in LA's District 13.]

Los Angeles voters in the 2022 midterm election presented high concerns over the housing crisis, the exponential increase in the cost of rent and the safety of themselves and their loved ones in a city where crime is on the rise. In response to these feelings, a progressive wave hit LA, ushering in a slew of progressive challengers in local city elections, from mayor to the city council, to school boards, to county races. Karen Bass’s mayoral victory was only one of the many progressive victories won in Los Angeles. Along with her victory, came the entrance of four progressive City Council members, including Hugo Soto-Martinez for City Council District 13.

Soto-Martinez’s victory represents a shift for LA City District 13 away from incumbent Mitch O’Farrell. During O’Farrell’s nine year appointment, he was criticized for advocating and supporting the building of luxury high rises, destroying homeless encampments and increasing homelessness. Soto-Martinez advocated and promised the opposite of O’Farrell’s policies as City Council member, focusing on rapidly transitioning people experiencing homelessness into affordable long-term stable housing. Soto-Martinez sat down for a conversation answering questions regarding his own point of view on why he won, on what this represents regarding politics across the country and on how Angelenos should expect policy to change.

Was running for office ever in the plan?

Not in a serious way. I engaged in the political process, but as an organizer. I was happy doing that. It wasn’t until the issues of the city got kind of out of control. I felt like we needed to bring a different perspective and someone who has different values back to the city.

On your logo it says HUGO, then “community power” underneath it. What does that mean to you? What does community mean to you?

I think that when we decided to run, we knew that we wanted people to be part of the process. So that comes back from my union organizing background. When you organize a hotel, you try to find leaders that work in each different department. And when you fight the company you have to make sure you have all the leaders on board in that fight. Cause those leaders have followers. And when you have enough leaders, you can have a majority of workers in the workplace engaging in the fight. When we thought about the campaign, the issues are very similar. The lack of housing, homelessness crisis, the lack of transportation issues, how we deal with our public safety. We knew that in order to take on those issues, what would be needed was going to be the power of community.

Community is powerful. How can community be used a tool to get things done?

Regarding policy, if you think about how laws traditionally get passed. It’s corporations that use lobbyists. They have a lobbying arm and they go around and talk to different leaders and they push laws in the way. Community groups, they don’t have the money for a lobbying firm and the messaging and money to create a campaign. What they do have is the power of their own labor. What you often times see is the protest, you see them going to City Council, them doing the lobbying themselves, them sharing their personal stories. The community becomes the face of the policy. What I call that is the outside strategy. The inside strategy are the lobbyists that are connected to the structure of power, but the outside strategy is the outside agitator pushing from the outside. That is the community piece that comes in, those folks being engaged from the grassroots level. That’s a different kind of pressure that is not connected to it but challenging it. I think that is probably the most important way.

I’m from Queens. AOC and Tiffany Caban both represent my district. Both of them are democratic socialists such as yourself. Their time in office is fairly new, and your time is office is brand new. Do you feel like their victories and your victory represents a sentiment among people that is growing coast to coast?

I think so. I don’t know the conditions in New York and what’s causing the movements to arise. But income inequality is a nationwide issue. Fighting the racist structures is a national thing. People having an ideology based on democratic socialist is a national thing that Bernie Sanders was big on bringing up. I think there’s a lot of beliefs that are very rooted. They are probably facing rising rents and a lot of low wage workers. I do think in that vein it is something we can use as a platform.

You are not the only progressive candidate that won. Karen Bass won her election. Other progressive candidates won their elections for their City Council races. What encouraged and motivated Angelenos to vote for you and other progressive candidates?

This was a very anti-establishment sentiment. People see what the results of the decision making body that was there for many years. Especially around homelessness, people are in the streets, the skyrocketing rents. What we talked about was the lack of public infrastructure, transit infrastructure. But we weren’t really talking about the root causes of this. You know, the skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing and the power of developers in the city around homelessness. The backwards policies of moving people from one block to the next without really finding housing solutions or mental health and drug addictions. I think people were really excited to see someone really challenging the roots of the system instead of just trying to paper over it. I think that’s what really resonated with a lot of people.

When you went around and you talked to people on your campaign and voters in your district, what issue seemed the most pressing if you could choose one?

The number one was homelessness. I would say like 6 out of 10 people would say homelessness and then after that housing.

A lot of students here at USC are amazed at how many people experience homelessness around the city. Many are amazed also at the price of rent in this neighborhood. Housing and homelessness were two of your main policy goals for your campaign. You yourself called it a bold vision and bold plans for the future. How do you plan to accomplish this?

We’re going to work with other council members, the mayor who I believe has a very similar vision. Our office is about 30 people, that’s how big the staff is. We want to have a team within the staff that only works on the homeless crisis. That’s all they do. They take calls, they visit encampments, they connect people to services, they build those relationships. Second, we are pushing a lot for adaptive reuse. Which is just a fancy word for refurbishing vacant buildings. There are a lot of vacant buildings that are in the city. We could be using those for housing. We want to be really aggressive about turning those into housing solutions. And then finally, we know what doesn’t work and that’s the sweeps. Rounding people up and pushing them from one side of the block to another. That just retraumatizes and pushes them further away from housing. We want to stop that practice within the district.

In the time of your campaign and even prior, how did you develop the specific policy?

The most effective way is listening to the people doing the work. We would do a series of roundtables on different issues. Depending on the issue we would convene a roundtable of the people doing the work. Whether that was homelessness, housing, transit, environment, women’s reproductive rights. And we asked what are the things you need to be better at your job? What are the policies?

When you have been interacting with people, what kind of feelings have you been gathering?

For the most part there is a lot of frustration. People feel like we do a lot but not enough for things to change. There is a lot of anger. People are definitely upset with their leaders. You feel that a lot. With the campaign, it is about trying to create a new vision. To fill people with optimism and a sense of having a much better future. That’s what organizing is a lot about. You might take folks who are feeling down or are unhappy about the future but you can inspire them. We’ve been trying to take folks who are feeling frustrated or angry and fill them with a lot of optimism.

Now that you’re elected, is there anything fun you’re looking forward to as a City Council member?

I’m looking forward to bringing my niece to City Council. My first niece, she’s fun, she’s beautiful, she’s full of so much joy. Expose her to how government works and hopefully she can become a strong and independent woman and a leader in her own right.

And lastly, what’s your biggest fear?

To not let people down. People have a lot of expectations from us. We’ve inspired a lot of folks. I hope we can live up to everything that we’ve talked about. Campaigning is very different than governing. And hopefully we can achieve what we’ve said.