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Hugo Soto-Martínez Is Building Community Power in LA City Council District 13

The City Council candidate has a long history of organizing against structures of power — and winning.

hugo soto-martinez holding megaphone
(Image: Eric Kelly)

After 15 years as a union organizer, Hugo Soto-Martínez is perhaps more prepared than anyone for the gargantuan task of representing 250,000 of his neighbors on the Los Angeles City Council. 

“What I’ve learned [from the union] is to have a lot of patience, to do a lot of listening, a lot of pushing, and trying to bring people to find this consensus,” he explained. “It’s not about me, right? It’s about them. It’s empowering them and taking myself out of it. I think there’s not a lot of people who govern that way in the city of LA.”

Soto-Martínez is running to represent LA City Council District 13 (CD 13), which includes the neighborhoods of Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, Historic Filipinotown, Hollywood, Little Armenia, Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown, Silver Lake, and Thai Town. 

In the second half of 2021, Soto-Martínez outraised CD 13’s incumbent councilmember, Mitch O’Farrell. Over three-quarters of Soto-Martínez’s donations were less than $100, compared to 1% of O’Farrell’s — a sign of his grassroots support within the community he’s devoted most of his adult life to fighting for.

Born and raised in South Central LA, Soto-Martínez is the son of two immigrants from Mexico who made a living as street vendors. When Soto-Martínez was 14, his father suffered a back injury that left him disabled and unable to work.

“It was very disruptive to the family, as you can imagine,” Soto-Martínez said. “I was a high school dropout. I was on probation as a juvenile. Not happy to admit that, but those are the circumstances I was in.”

The turning point came when his mother found work as a janitor at LAX — a union job represented by SEIU. “That brought a lot of stability to the family,” Soto-Martínez recalled. “She could just work one job, and we had healthcare … it didn’t provide everything, but it certainly put us in the right direction.”

As the second oldest of six children, Soto-Martínez started working to support his family at the age of 16, finding a job at a non-union hotel in Downtown LA. He worked there for the next seven years, even while commuting to college at UC Irvine.

“When I first started working there, it was kind of cool. You know, they treated us right,” Soto-Martínez said. But after two changes in management, conditions deteriorated. “Cutbacks, shitty managers, just the worst situation. You saw people now working through their breaks, working off the clock, combining positions, the level of exploitation was through the roof.”

About six weeks before his college graduation, Soto-Martínez was juggling job interviews and preparing for law school applications when a co-worker approached him about forming a union. He dropped everything to join the fight. Within three months, they had won their first contract.

“It was incredibly transformative,” he said. “You know, a bunch of working-class people of color took down a very powerful corporation. I became an addict of the movement in that process.”

Fifteen years later, Soto-Martínez is still organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11. He also became involved in other community issues, organizing with DSA-LA and becoming a co-coordinator of NOlympics LA, a campaign to oppose the 2028 LA Olympics.

“I landed on NOlympics because they had a very clear objective,” he said. “Canvassing places in Hollywood, talking to tenants fighting AirBnB and displacement. … There’s a lot of harm that could come because of [the Olympics], the displacement, accelerating gentrification, the removal of housing. Most appalling is allowing ICE to come in and, in the largest undocumented community in the country, [give them] sort of carte blanche on the city.”

Soto-Martinez and a group of others wearing matching t-shirts that say Adios Arpaio
Soto-Martínez with the Adios Arpaio leadership team in 2016 (Image: Twitter)

In 2016, Soto-Martínez led UNITE HERE’s field office in Arizona during the final year of the union’s campaign to unseat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The four-year effort, led by UNITE HERE and PAZ en Accion, ultimately succeeded — Arpaio lost his reelection bid in November 2016.

Four years later, Soto-Martínez was called into another, more personal fight. In June 2020, 18-year-old Andrés Guardado was murdered by LASD deputies. According to a whistleblower, the deputies who killed Guardado were prospective members of the Executioners gang, which Sheriff Alex Villanueva continues to deny the existence of.

Soto-Martínez had known Guardado’s father, Cristobal, for 20 years, ever since they were yet-to-be-unionized workers at the same hotel. Soto-Martínez quickly heard the news about Guardado’s death from a mutual friend.

“So I called Cristobal, left him a message, he didn’t pick up,” Soto-Martínez recalled. “He called me later and just, you can imagine. Just destroyed. But our union made a very clear decision, we were gonna make sure Villanueva was not reelected. We did it with Arpaio in 2016, and we’re gonna do it again.”

For the past two years, Soto-Martínez has been co-chairing UNITE HERE Local 11’s #AdiosVillanueva campaign, an effort to hold the sheriff accountable for, among other things, mishandling the investigation into Guardado’s murder. 

To oust Villanueva, they needed to persuade three key groups that had supported his election in 2018.

“The analysis we made was, we need to knock out labor, we need to knock out the [Democratic] party, we need to knock out the Latino vote,” Soto-Martínez said. “And so the first thing we do, knock out labor support.”

Together with BLM-LA, ACLU SoCal, Justice LA, CLUE, Check the Sheriff Coalition, and over 60 other groups, the coalition sent a letter calling for Villanueva’s resignation. Besides UNITE HERE Local 11, several other labor unions signed on to the letter — a significant turn, given that Villanueva’s 2018 campaign had been endorsed by the California Labor Federation.

“For the first time ever, we brought labor into this fight. That had never happened before,” Soto-Martínez said. “It just created shockwaves. I mean, the guy was, we heard he was losing his shit. … There is no way in hell he’s getting the Federation’s support. We made him toxic.”

The next target was the LA County Democratic Party, which had endorsed Villanueva in 2018. UNITE HERE Local 11 was among the sponsors of a resolution calling for Villanueva’s resignation. In June 2021, the motion passed, with 91% of LACDP members voting in favor.

“He didn’t get the Dem support, it’s done,” Soto-Martínez said. “And so now we’re working on the Latino constituency, and if we can knock that piece off him, the guy is gone.”

Notably absent from the fight against Villanueva was Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, whose district Guardado was a resident of. “Mitch O’Farrell, I don’t think he did much of anything,” Soto-Martínez said. “So that’s another thing that sort of propelled me to run as being part of that community.”

A memorial for Andrés Guardado, an 18-year-old killed by a Deputy Sheriff in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Flowers, candles, and signs adorn a fence demanding justice.
A memorial for Andrés Guardado in 2020. (Image: Caroline Johnson)

As with many progressives in LA, Soto-Martínez’s interest in electoral politics was sparked by the success of Councilmember Nithya Raman’s 2020 campaign. “I was really inspired by that because a quote-unquote ‘normal’ individual, not a political insider, defeated an incumbent,” he said. “So I started looking around to see if someone like myself could do the same thing and win.”

Soto-Martínez’s campaign strategy is rooted in something he learned from his years of union organizing: consensus building.

“The hotel industry is incredibly diverse,” Soto-Martínez said. “There’s all different positions, and each position attracts a kind of person … and then you bring them all together and you have to figure out how you get them on board with the same thing.”

Soto-Martínez’s campaign is a similarly broad coalition. Along with some of the key staff from Raman’s 2020 campaign, over 900 volunteers have come aboard, representing a number of labor unions, grassroots organizations, immigration groups, and criminal justice groups.

Soto-Martínez describes the campaign’s structure as “very similar to a union,” with a core group of organizers from across the coalition making decisions together horizontally.

“We’re very purposely asking people to come in and be part of the process,” he said. “And we’ve been very upfront, we’re doing this now so that when we win, we just continue that sort of work in office.”

A large group of people gathered in a park. A banner says "Hugo: community power."
Volunteers at a campaign event in February 2022 (Image: Hugo Soto-Martinez campaign)

One of the most pressing problems facing City Council District 13 is what Soto-Martínez has fought against for years with NOlympics: displacement. According to the 2020 census, the total population of the city of Los Angeles increased by 2.8% from 2010 to 2020. However, CD 13 lost 5.1% of its population — the highest loss of any district. 

This is likely related to the rising cost of housing in the renter-heavy district. According to a 2018 report, 55% of households in CD 13 are housing-cost burdened, with 29% of households spending 50% or more of their household income on housing, which is more than double the countywide average.

To stem this issue, Soto-Martínez says we need more forward-thinking solutions. He suggests using housing overlay zones to incentivize affordable developments — a strategy recently proposed by Councilmembers Raman and Marqueece Harris-Dawson — as well as creating anti-eviction overlay zones to protect tenants from Ellis Act evictions. However, even these innovative tactics may not go far enough to solve the problem.

“Everyone’s talking about building more affordable housing — you gotta ask more from developers, we gotta use city vacant land to create 100% affordable [housing],” he said. “I think that’s basic stuff, right? The thing we are talking about a little more is getting to the root of why this is happening.”

A 2021 report by SAJE found that corporations or trusts own two-thirds of all rental housing units in LA County. These profit-driven “investment vehicles” have been linked to rising rents, increased eviction rates, and gentrification.

“We’ve got to bring attention to really how much they own,” Soto-Martínez said. “I think if the public understands that, there’s gonna be an outrage. Because those folks are just robbing them blind.”

To Soto-Martínez, the fullest solution is decommodifying housing — taking units off the speculative private market altogether. The city could acquire existing buildings through eminent domain, or through the investments of a public bank, which the city is currently considering creating.

“A public bank can help us buy back a lot of these apartments that can be used for a public good as opposed to profit,” he said.

One of the most obvious differences between Soto-Martínez and Council District 13’s current representative is their views on the unhoused community. Mitch O’Farrell was behind last year’s infamous Echo Park Lake encampment sweep, in which nearly 200 unhoused people were displaced and a similar number of protesters and journalists were arrested.

Many of the housing offers LAHSA made to the Echo Park Lake residents fell through, and after four months, only three people had found permanent housing. Nevertheless, this failed strategy of police-led “outreach” was soon codified into law with an amendment to LAMC 41.18, which criminalizes sitting, sleeping, or lying in many public places.

“There’s a lot of distrust between the unhoused community and the city,” Soto-Martínez said. “There’s a lot of times they’ve been promised housing, and it’s almost never come through. Which is no surprise, because even if you add up all the different kinds of housing, there’s only about 40% capacity.”

Since 2020, the City of LA has been awarded nearly $170 million in state funds to turn hotels and apartments into permanent supportive housing through Project Homekey. However, Soto-Martínez says the city could be doing more to put the program to use.

“There’s still a lot of hotels running at 50% capacity. I walk down the street and there’s tons of retail spaces sitting empty every single day. We’ve got to think about how we use those spaces for the public good,” he said. “Right now they’re being used for nothing, literally nothing. I think the public good is commandeering those places and using them for shelter. You have it already, they’re just not being utilized.”

Soto-Martínez is staunchly opposed to the 41.18 ordinance, and pledges not to use it to displace unhoused residents in CD 13. “Luckily, the councilmember has a lot of discretion over how it’s implemented in the district,” he said. “Armed police officers are not the tool that we should be using for a lot of the ills of society, including trying to move someone into shelter.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his experience organizing against two abusive sheriffs, Soto-Martinez is skeptical of the police’s ability to protect public safety.

“I grew up in an unsafe neighborhood. I remember walking those streets. I’ve been assaulted. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint and at knifepoint. So I get it, you know, there’s a lot of fear out there,” he said. “But what we’re not discussing is how do we prevent crime?”

To Soto-Martínez, the answer lies in giving more resources to the communities that need them. “I think a lot about how transformative my mom getting that union job was. It was because she had a better wage. She had more time with us at the house. We had health insurance, right? And that created an environment where we were not alone,” he recalled. 

“When we look at working class communities, and why a crime happened, it’s crimes of poverty, crimes of desperation,” he continued. “I think we need to think about how that money is used to prevent crime, as opposed to pretending that somehow the police showing up after the crime has occurred is going to stop it.”

If Soto-Martínez is elected, he might be facing an uphill battle to pass legislation on a council that’s largely hostile to progressive policies. It’s a challenge he doesn’t shy away from.

“I sort of see our role as the same way Bernie Sanders uses his role in the Senate or in the Budget Finance Committee. It’s pushing for the most progressive policy that we can possibly get, reflective of the power that we build, without having to compromise our beliefs,” he said.

Soto-Martínez emphasizes his place in a tradition of progressive candidates: Jessica Salans, who ran unsuccessfully for CD 13 in 2017; Loraine Lundquist, who very narrowly lost to John Lee in District 12 in 2019 and 2020; and Nithya Raman, who defeated District 4 incumbent David Ryu in 2020. 

Many of the same people worked on each of these campaigns — and now they’ve circled back to CD 13 to support Hugo Soto-Martínez. This time around, the progressive coalition is stronger than ever before.

“It’s not just about now, it’s about long, sustained, organizing, that really brings larger change,” Soto-Martínez said. “I always say that what you win is reflective of the power that you build. And so all it says is that, if we don’t have enough power right now to make a change, we just gotta keep building our power.”

Knock LA is a project of Ground Game LA. This article was not authorized by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.

Hugo Soto-Martínez is one of several candidates endorsed by Ground Game LA.