Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez was elected president of the council on Tuesday, becoming the first Latina to hold the powerful position.
Martinez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, will replace Councilman Herb Wesson, who announced last week that he was stepping down as president to focus on his campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The council unanimously chose Martinez in a 14-0 vote, with Councilman Gil Cedillo absent. After the vote, Martinez spoke emotionally about her upbringing in Pacoima as the child of a dishwasher and a factory worker from the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
"When I was growing up, a lot of little girls that look like me and talk like me didn't necessarily grow up to believe that they, one day, can have these types of positions," Martinez said, adding that she wanted girls to know that they could "grow up to be anything you want."
Martinez, whose district in the eastern San Fernando Valley takes in neighborhoods including Arleta, Sun Valley and Panorama City, takes the position on Jan. 5, 2020. She said her agenda as council president, which she will detail next month, will focus on helping children and families.
Martinez was elected to the City Council after a come-from-behind victory in 2013, becoming only the second Latina to serve. Her opponent had trounced Martinez by 19 percentage points in the primary, raised far more money than she had and had the endorsement of Mayor Eric Garcetti. But Martinez prevailed in the general election -- a win she attributed, in part, to knocking on doors in the district.
As a councilwoman, Martinez has advocated for raising the minimum wage, a local "Green New Deal" focused on environmental justice for poor communities of color, and paid leave for new parents.
Martinez's typically blunt speaking style was on display during a discussion at City Hall last year about proposed rules for electric scooters and bicycles. She reminded her colleagues about her working-class constituents.
"We don't have any dockless bicycles or fancy scooters in my district," she said. "We're just trying to cross the street without getting killed."
As council president, she'll have the power to decide when and how policy proposals are vetted at public meetings. The president also chooses the council members to lead committees that oversee key issues, such as homelessness and real estate development.
Martinez takes the helm of the council after a year in which there have been two FBI raids at City Hall. Asked about public trust, Martinez told reporters Tuesday that that voters need to "feel confident that their government is working for them," adding that "everyone has a right to due process and we need to allow for that process to play out."
Former Councilwoman Gloria Molina, the first Latina elected to the panel, has criticized the current council as too beholden to real estate developers and special interests, pointing to the tax breaks regularly approved for new hotels and other developments.
"She has a real opportunity to bring so much change, she has an opportunity to create a balance," Molina said Tuesday of Martinez.
Her election is "a very significant accomplishment, not just as a Latina but as a woman," Molina said. "It's still a men's game there."
Also on Tuesday, the council chose Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents neighborhoods including Watts and San Pedro, to succeed Martinez as president pro tempore, also on a 14-0 vote.