CD1 candidate Eunisses Hernandez hopes to bring her lifelong fight for criminal justice reform to City Hall.
On April 6, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association held a protest at Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s field office, saying that Cedillo hadn’t kept his 2020 promise to have the City of LA buy their building using eminent domain. One tenant, Sonia Rodriguez, said that their landlord wanted to double their rents, from $1200 to $2400 per month. She accused Cedillo of refusing to meet with the tenants for two years. Another tenant, Marguerita Ruiz, said she has four daughters who deserve to live in a good place, and that she doesn’t want to be pushed out of her neighborhood.
Cedillo’s field office is smack dab in the middle of Highland Park, an epicenter of rapid gentrification, much of which has taken place since Cedillo was elected to represent District 1 in 2013. Cedillo’s challenger in the do-or-die June 7 primary election, Eunisses Hernandez, was born and raised in the district — which encompasses Glassell Park, Mount Washington, Pico Union, Cypress Park, Highland Park, Chinatown, and parts of Echo Park and Koreatown, among other neighborhoods.
Hernandez knows the struggle to keep from being pushed out of the neighborhood. Her family has lived in the district for over 30 years, in the same house that they bought decades ago.
“We’ve really struggled to stay in our house,” she says. “We pawned off property, like my mom’s jewelry, to be able to pay the mortgage.”
Hernandez is known as an abolitionist candidate, having crafted policy to help keep citizens out of the vortex of the criminal justice system. But early in her life, she thought about becoming a police officer.
“I did go through this journey of becoming a police officer,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been the cop that arrested my homie for selling weed — and that conviction ruined his life. I could have been the cop when there was intimate partner violence happening in my home, with the folks who were renting rooms. I would have actually gotten out of the car. When I called the cops at the time, they didn’t get out of the car.”
Even after having to do 42 hours of community service because of a ticket for failing a smog check, Hernandez says she still wanted to be near officers to learn from them.
“When I was in school I realized there were actual data, definitions, vocabulary, theories, and I realized there was a non-carceral, non-law-enforcement response that could have helped me in those situations,” says Hernandez. She was working at Universal Studios — part of IATSE Local B-192 — when she got her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Eventually Hernandez landed at the Drug Policy Alliance as an intern. After being hired full-time, she worked on state ballot measures like Prop 47, which reclassified nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, and Prop 64, which legalized marijuana use for adults.
Hernandez co-founded La Defensa, a femme-led group that she said was born out of her desire to close Men’s Central Jail, advance pre-trial reform, and stop “bad laws” like Prop 25, which was set to overturn bail, and replace it with an infinitely more carceral system, giving probationary courts hundreds of millions of dollars and allowing judges to detain pretrial suspects arbitrarily. La Defensa, along with the JusticeLA coalition, advocated for a care-first model focused on harm reduction, hiring community health workers, and pre-trial diversion programs. Hernandez stepped down from the organization to focus on her campaign.
Several harm-reduction victories have already been secured by Hernandez. She touts bringing a pilot program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) to Long Beach and South LA as part of her work with the Drug Policy Alliance. The program links people charged with minor drug offenses or sex work with case workers who try to build trust and steer them out of the criminal justice system.
The LA Times reported that more than two thirds of participants in the pilot in that location “said they had stopped or cut back on drug use after enrolling.” A survey released by the LEAD Bureau shows that clients self-reported suffering fewer attacks and sexual assaults after going through the program.
“This program is thriving,” says Hernandez. She says she tried to convince Councilmember Cedillo to bring the program to MacArthur Park in the district, but he declined.
Hernandez also plans to create programs for gang-impacted people as a councilmember, and is inspired by Chuco’s Justice Center, a space in South Central that works as a neutral ground for community organizing. “There’s a lot of nonprofits that do work there, and one of the things they do is they have conversations between gangs to create truces,” she says.
When Hernandez heard that Senator Bernie Sanders had endorsed Cedillo for reelection, she grew concerned that the district would continue to be represented by someone who enables gentrification. Cedillo has a track record of working with developers like Tom Gilmore and George Yu on luxury projects that displace low-income residents.
Hernandez noted that she was warned not to run by other elected officials. She worried that special-interest groups and law enforcement might come after her for challenging Cedillo, who she says runs his office “like a mafia … he’s going to come after everything.”
Knock LA spoke to a business owner who says that after they put up signs in their window in support of Hernandez, former California State Senator Richard Polanco, who was appointed as Cedillo’s redistricting commissioner during the 2021 redistricting process, came in to argue with the owner over who they were supporting in the election. Polanco did not return Knock LA’s request for comment.
“A lot of these elders were essentially banished into their homes because they were not able to access stairs,” she says. “It’s fucking 2022. We can’t get an elevator fixed in a building full of elders. It’s unfathomable that they’ve allowed this to go on for so long … [Cedillo has] done nothing for us.”
In August of last year, Cedillo closed the Avenue 26 Night Market, erecting fences and barriers to keep vendors from returning, and then ghosted on a meeting with the affected vendors soon after. Cedillo cited defecation and crime as a reason for the closure, in keeping with the city’s pattern of fencing off gathering areas from the public.
Hernandez sees this as a clear indication of priorities in how the city treats working-class vendors as opposed to brick-and-mortar business owners. “You can see that there’s been thousands of dollars invested in creating exterior infrastructure for small businesses like restaurants, and at the same time, you’re seeing that street vendors are getting swept off the same streets,” she says.
Cedillo has used LAMC 41.18 to criminalize sitting, lying, and sleeping in 28 zones in his district, with 13 more to be voted on by City Council in the future. Hernandez told Bolts that she would decline to enforce anti-encampment zones in the district.
In a pointed 2017 KCRW interview, the host asked Cedillo about taking money from landlord and Trump supporter Geoff Palmer. “I took one check from the beginning in the primary,” Cedillo responded. “I take money from developers to fund my campaign.” Cedillo asked the host to show him the influence of Palmer’s donation, and the host noted that Cedillo had said he would not support a requirement for buildings to include affordable housing.
Palmer sued the City of Los Angeles for $100 million due to its COVID-19 eviction moratorium, and in 2009 sued the city to overturn requirements for buildings to have affordable housing. Palmer has also been accused of improperly withholding tenants’ security deposits.
Since the KCRW interview, Cedillo has met with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who advocated for the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which Cedillo supported. Knock LA also obtained an email from developer Tom Gilmore speaking to the councilmember’s office about a development project the office is supporting. Gilmore and Associates has given Councilmember Cedillo $5,500 since 2012.
Councilmember Cedillo declined to comment on this article, but Knock LA spoke to one of his supporters, Los Angeles Apparel owner Dov Charney, who gave a maximum donation of $800 to Cedillo’s reelection campaign. Charney said that he’s known Cedillo for 20 years and supports the councilmember because of his views on immigration reform and because he believes Cedillo has been supportive of small- and medium-sized businesses. Charney also said he likes “the fact that Cedillo isn’t a ‘woke’ candidate, and that he’s not affected by political correctness.” Charney was fired by his former company, American Apparel, in 2014 following multiple allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault.
While Cedillo has long held onto his reputation as a union leader — he was elected as a state assemblymember in 1997 on a wave of labor of immigrant support — Hernandez feels that reputation is unearned, due to his failure to protect those groups during his 25 years in office. She argues that union members will be particularly affected by gentrification.
“Even in the last 10 years, in Highland Park we’ve seen a decline in the Latino population by 10%, and that’s not by accident,” she says. “That’s because rent is going up. That’s because people are getting evicted. These are the union members who are working in our stadiums and in our hotels.”
Hernandez says that as chair of City Council’s housing committee, Cedillo hasn’t wielded his power to alleviate pressure on renters. “He has done everything in his power to essentially not provide renter support, and even [Councilmember Nithya Raman’s] anti-tenant-harassment bill got watered down so bad in the housing committee, and it doesn’t have any teeth to be enforced.”
Hernandez believes that new construction needs to focus on affordable housing. “Our average median income per year is $32,000,” she says. “In other parts of [District 1], it’s closer to $20,000 a year, so when we think about building it needs to meet those needs.”
“The next four years in our city are extremely critical,” Hernandez argues, because “the Olympics are something that’s going to really change the fabric of our city, more than people even know.” Indeed, the Olympics are already being used as a reason for landlords to push longtime tenants out of their neighborhoods in favor of new buyers, as real estate firms like Ventus Group are doing with projects near USC.
Hernandez says that the next four legislative cycles will determine how the city’s $11 billion annual budget will be dispersed. Over this past weekend, Hernandez put out a Twitter thread on Mayor Garcetti’s proposed 2022-2023 budget, criticizing the fact that it gives over half of its unrestricted funds to the LAPD.
“There’s just so much on the line,” she says. But, as Hernandez exclaimed when asked about challenging incumbent power in City Hall, “I’ve been fighting the patriarchy as a Latina woman my whole fucking life.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the goal of SB10/Prop 25. We have updated the article to reflect that and we regret the error.
Knock LA is a journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA, which has endorsed Eunisses Hernandez for City Council. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.