TNN Interviews Grace Yoo, CD10 Candidate and Challenger in Run-Off with Mark Ridley-Thomas.

APR20Grace2Things are shaking up in Council District 10.  Councilman Herb Wesson, after representing the district for 13 years, is moving on and people are itching for a change.  Grace Yoo just might be that change. 

During Councilman Wesson's time the demographics in half of CD 10 went through a sea change. The predominantly black community on the north end of CD 10 saw a growth and integration of Hispanic, Korean and Gentrification cultures.  Many members of CD 10’s rapidly changing landscape, found Wesson’s old school style of Council District leadership, sorely wanting. 

Instead the district found the Councilmember turning his attention to bigger fish as he quickly maneuvered his way to a coveted seat of power, City Council President with an eye towards Mayor or Supervisor.

Meanwhile homelessness soared during his tenure, ignored except for sweeps.  His apparent lack of real interest in the roll up your sleeves and get down in the weeds kind of involvement, was evidenced by countless complaints of ignored calls and emails by constituents along with ignored issues - unless they were from ‘favored’ residents or issues residents had rallied around and were too big to ignore. 

Many residents are ready for someone who will exhibit committed leadership and do what it takes to effectively move the district into the rapidly changing landscape wihile putting resident needs foremost. 

The campaign front-runner for this position is Mark Ridley-Thomas who is being termed out as  Supervisor, the seat Wesson is campaigning for. MRT had all the credentials and war chest to win.  He served as a California State Senator, a California State Assemblyman, a Chairman of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, and was a councilmember on the Los Angeles City Council. 

Four people challenged him in the primary and none of them came close to matching these kinds of credentials.  So…why was he not able to reach 50% of the votes needed to nail this thing?

A few reasons.

1. People are ready for a change from the expected leadership constantly presented to them as a given.

2. Mark-Ridley Thomas’s days are numbered. He has already served two terms as a councilmember so is only allowed one more term.  That’s four years left to represent CD10.  Councilmembers usually stay for the full three terms (12 years) needed to focus and get the work done…unless they have their eye on something bigger and need a hold over spot until they can grab the prize. The prize for MRT?  Mayor.  That election comes up in two years, which means for the first two years he will be distracted by his run for mayor. And if elected he will be gone.  If loses he has two years left to represent CD10 fully as well as find a job.  The problem is obvious.

3. Two of the challengers were women, Grace Yoo and Aura Vasquez, who had enough credentials, energy, ideas and enthusiasm to siphon off and match the number of votes Ridley-Thomas got.  Proving that people are genuinely interested in a change of guard.

Of those two women, Grace Yoo pulled ahead of Aura Vasquez by a little over a thousand votes and will be running against Mark-Ridley Thomas. MRT had gathered well over 9,000 more votes than Grace making this as a true David and Goliath scenario. 

We reached out to Ms. Yoo who kindly agreed to speak with us about her epic, upcoming battle. 


The Neighborhood News:  Why do you think with all his connections, money, endorsements and position, Mark Ridley-Thomas [MRT] couldn't quite reach 50% of the vote. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Grace Yoo:   Several reasons;  Because people want change. Because most voters know that he and Herb Wesson are trying to very undemocratically just exchange seats. Many voters are also aware that Mark Ridley-Thomas is running for mayor, and the election is in two years, 2022, so he will not be able to give attention to our issues in CD 10.  Also others are thinking, "We want a woman to win." Currently there are only 2 women out of 15 councilmembers. 

And finally now with the FBI investigation targeting City Hall councilmembers corruption, I feel like voters are thinking, "We really want someone who wants to do what's right for CD10."

TNN:  Why should people choose you over Mark Ridley-Thomas?

GY:  Because I'm the person who will roll up her sleeves and get to work and not be concerned about running for another office. My focus and my intentions are for the betterment of the district and its people, its residents, and not my political career.

TNN:   One of the concerns people have is that MRT brings years of experience to his position while you would be a newcomer to City Hall. What experience do you bring that makes you feel confident the transition to the seat of power would not be a big learning curve?

GY:  The fact that I've been Executive Director for 15 years of two national nonprofits, [The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Korean American Coalition, the LA chapter] demonstrates that I have experience managing a staff and budget and running an operation. I know how to reach out, grow organizations and sustain them in difficult times.

I've run my own small business, operating my law firm for the past five years.  I have been Commissioner and Vice President of the Department of Transportation. So I understand how the City operates having interacted with local, state and federal government agencies. I understand a lot of the protocol and am comfortable in knowing how things work. And of course I know Robert's Rules of Order.


TNN:   I'm sure you are aware of the current corruption scandals at City Hall involving Mitch Englander and Jose Huizar. In February 2019, Forbes magazine pegged the California Central District in Los Angeles as the second most corrupt city in America, with 1,534 corruption convictions between 1976 and 2016. CityWatchLA currently reported that the feds have busted a political fundraiser, who says he delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to an as yet unnamed LA City Council member. MRT even had a corruption scandal of his own involving USC.

During redistricting, the constant expectation and demand of Korean businesses to pony up constant donations for Herb Wesson's CD 10 funds came to light. CityWatchLA has referred to you as plain, spoken, and honest. And City Hall corruption has been on your radar for quite a while. You made the issue part of your platform. So what can one Councilmember do to begin to address this entrenched business as usual, backroom, wheeling and dealing boys' club of pay to play?

GY:  I know how one person can make all the difference. Because during the redistricting that occurred in 2010, Helen Kim was a commissioner who made sure every time she saw a backroom deal occurring, she put it on the record putting the other commissioners on check. When you're able to do this, it means the others will try to listen because they know this is all being recorded, and when you follow the breadcrumbs, you're going to be able to find the corruption. So when you have someone like me who's going to say, "This isn't right. This is against the law. And we're putting it on the record," it's going to be harder for corrupt individuals to continue on that path. I would be a roadblock to this easy way of pay to play.

I would also start with Councilmembers actually having to vote on each agenda item. Did you know that when a vote comes up, the board indicates an automatic YES unless the member pushes the No button?  Currently the Councilmembers do not actually cast a vote or often don’t even pay attention to what the vote is.

If you went out for a bathroom break or stepped outside for a short minute and a vote is taken, you've automatically voted yes. Unreal, right? I would advocate that the councilmembers are required to cast their own vote Yes or No.

TNN:  Regarding the backroom deals City Council is often accused of making with developers  How would you find out when these deals are going on especially if they know you're a whistle blower, wouldn't they work hard to keep that information from you?

 GY:  That may be true. I remember appearing before PLUM [Planning and Land Use Management] at City Hall about the Catalina Tower development.  It was a twenty-seven story, a 269-luxury apartment project surrounded by one and two story buildings.

Although the Mayor and City Hall had approved it, there were serious errors in the approval process. I said, "This is against the law, you leave me no options but take you to court." My group, The Environmental Justice Collaborative, along with Fix the City did sue. The judge ruled against the city and forced a proper and full environmental impact review.

As a layperson coming out and protesting and appealing, it doesn’t have as much weight and you can easily be ignored as City Hall did when I protested. As a Council member, they're going to have to talk to me and engage me. I'm going to continue to be a fierce opponent for corruption. And when I'm there, constantly asking for answers to my questions, it's going to be hard for them to ignore my concerns. And if they continue to ignore me, I will ask things like, "Are you being bribed?" I have no qualms about saying this because we know that this is what happens inside City Hall. That is the culture that has been cultivated.

TNN:  Do you feel that you have anyone on the City Council that will support these efforts?   Anybody who is simpatico to your sensibility?

GY:  I am of the belief that not every single person in that chamber is corrupt. I think there's an atmosphere of fear where you need to get along or else but I'm not one of those people. I don't mind being the person bringing attention to something that seems wrong. So I believe we're going to find the right people in there. And I think when I stand up others will stand up with me. I think right now, there are strong players who have kept everybody in check, but they will be termed out or taken out and we will have new fresh blood that will do business differently.

TNN:  I think especially since this corruption has exploded.

GY:  Exactly. I'll come in at just the right time, a new fresh era.


TNN:  So some, not all, people in the black community have the experience of being disrespected by some, not all, Korean businesses that have set up shop in black communities. And that is an issue. Those people are concerned that you may not have their backs. I mean this is a real issue that's come up in discussions. So how do you address this concern?

GY:  I'm not interested in being a councilwoman for one particular strata of income level or one ethnic community, I'm really in there to be a councilwoman for everybody. I understand that there are these beliefs by certain community members. And I’m confident I’ll be able to alter the current perceptions by bringing about positive change across a spectrum of communities.

I’m aware of and really care about each person and the different difficult circumstances that different people are in. I think my ability to really understand and have genuine conversations with different people gives me confidence that we can change how things are done.

I think I will have trust levels with Korean Americans so that I can ask them to do more for local communities. I would like to ask that the Korean business owners do more to engage the local community, make the local community people feel heard and listened to and make changes that will benefit them and the community they serve.

I think back to one of these mediations that was done while I was at the Korean American Coalition. This was an issue in Oakland where a Korean business owner was having a lot of strife with the local community members who were predominantly African American, who felt like they weren't listened to. And when my organization went in to mediate the situation, we were able to explain to both parties what the concerns were.

The African American community members were like, "They don't carry products that we want. I don't know what's wrong with them." So I went back to explain to the store owners why their African American customers were upset. Their response was "Oh, we can't get those products because they won't give it to us unless we pay for it in advance." And when we were able to share that with the local community members, they understood that this is why some of those products weren’t available and not because the owners were ignoring them.

So it's these small little things that ended up causing a bigger issue when in reality if you talked it through you can come to some real understanding. I have played that mediator role for misunderstandings that have occurred between people. I’ve always been that middle bridge person because of being a first generation immigrant. Being a non-native English speaker, I became a more careful listener to people who didn’t have English as their first language.    

TNN:  Are you willing to set something up in your council office that would specifically focus on bringing communities together if there are cultural clashes?  The district is exploding in a variety of cultural groups.

GY:  One of the concerns is that Korean American business owners within CD 10 are not hiring enough African Americans. That is something that I heard and I will go and ask why it is, what can they do to make sure that they hired local people. And we'll see what comes of it.

TNN:   I guess what I'm asking is will you have a protocol set up for addressing issues like this that come up?

GY:  To have a protocol just for this one issue isn't something that I'm planning to do, but I will definitely want to address it. If the question is will my office and I get involved in community disputes? The answer's yes, of course, we will. I'm going to try my very best to bring my mediation skills to alleviate situations in the community wherever the tension is.


TNN:   Are there needs in this diverse CD 10 community of Koreans, Orthodox Jews, Ethiopians, African Americans, white, wealthy, poor, that they all share?  That have not been getting the attention they deserve?

GY:  Absolutely. Everybody would like good City service. And I said I would be very transparent. There are parts of the district where if they say, "We want this big bulky item picked up." it's picked up within a day or two, and there are other places where it takes months.

What I'd like to do is use our wonderful 311 system and expand its so that you could go online and see the cue for all requests and not just your own. We want to know that the order of response is preserved. Let’s say that Diane called in and Sam called in and Michael called in. It wouldn't be fair if Diane who called in first didn't get her services answered to before the others. Or maybe you’ll find Diane wasn’t served because she had actually been serviced five times already. So we want everybody to know why and when. I would work to amplify and make public the requests for services and services rendered.

TNN:  This would hold the people who have to go out more accountable?

GY:  Exactly.  So we're looking for transparency and government accountability. That's what people want. We want to know what’s being done.


TNN:  Small businesses had been neglected during Herb Wesson's time in our district. There were no channels or organized effort to reach out and help them. Now with coronavirus, many small businesses will go under or hang on by a thread. Do you have any ideas that focus on setting up a permanent resource within your office to aid small businesses in District 10? And how would it function?

GY:  I think navigating City Hall is not easy. And it should be easy. We need our small businesses to thrive because they're the ones that bring in the jobs. They're not bringing in people from other parts of the country to get a small mom-and-pop job. So the locals are the ones that are being hired and therefore we're losing out if our small businesses go under. And I want to make sure that we protect everybody. That not only means the folks who don't have a home, and the folks who are struggling to stay in their apartment, but also the small business people who need to be taken care of at this time.

TNN:  I talk to small businesses because of my business so I hear all the stories about what they're struggling with and one of the common complaints is they got no help from CD 10.  Some of the businesses like to put things out on the street to attract the drive by traffic and then suddenly they were being visited by city officials and were told they couldn't do that.

GY:  It’s ludicrous that we have different sets of rules for different parts of the City for the same thing. It's okay on certain streets like Vermont, but it's not okay on Pico? No, that's not fair.

Look, I'm going to be responding and responsible to all my constituents. And that means small business owners, that means elderly, that means little children.  My office will definitely know and help and assist small businesses.


TNN:  The coronavirus is reshaping the landscape. I mean nobody knows where this is going or how it's going to end or the actual effect it's going to have on our communities and on tax income. So it's a real unknown, the real wrench that's been thrown into everybody's work and it’s happening just as all these elections are about to come up. What are your thoughts about this? Have you been thinking about how it may reshape the way you campaign?

GY:  Oh, absolutely. I need to win this and therefore we are considering our options and what needs to be done. This is the time when grassroots really is going to make the difference. Because it's all about how effective you are in reaching out to community members who are leaders who can speak on your behalf because the regular meet and greets are not going to be happening. You're going to need trusted precinct captains or block captains, the old fashioned method. And this is going to be just, "How quickly can I deploy my enthusiastic volunteers and supporters to help me to get to the people?"


TNN:  What do you think are some of the most pressing environmental issues that City Council should be addressing?

GY:  Oil drilling is a concern. Not fully closing the one on Adams.  The City should shut them down because they are not in compliance. And lack of enforcement is causing our people to be less healthy.

Have you noticed how clean our air is? Because of the coronavirus and people not driving as much, our air quality has improved. I'm hoping that one of the positives that comes out of this is we can do a lot more telecommuting work from home. That would be huge and would help us in air quality.

There are environmental laws on the books that aren’t being enforced. So enforcement of these laws to protect the environment is something I will definitely pay attention to.


TNN: Let’s talk about the job the city is doing building homeless housing.

GY:  The City does not spend its money wisely. We spend $700,000 in CD 10 to build one unit in one apartment complex, which on average has at least 40 units so it's about $28 million to build one apartment complex. Right? That's crazy.

Now if you don't provide affordable housing in your building, then you can give to the City's housing fund who are only asking for like, I think a quarter million, $250,000. I'm like, "That doesn't even build one unit the way you guys are spending it." So why would the city agree and allow these developers to only pay 250,000 into the housing fund? I mean things don't add up. You can trust that when I get in there, I will fight for and ensure that the developers pay the right amount of money that will actually build one unit of affordable housing.

I think the City does a great job of saying, "Look, this is we're doing and here we go." Yet they don't go back and look at the details and look at the cost and figure out how to be more efficient so it would result in some real cost savings.

This is what you get from someone who comes from the nonprofit world where we're not corporate with abundant money. We have to look at the true reality of, "How much money do we have? And is it within our budget? And can we do this? And then how do we get creative? And what do we do? And how do we get support?" We have lost sight of the housing goals that need to be met. We need housing for everybody at every income level. Let's not limit our idea of what a home is supposed to be like. For some, a 200 square foot tiny house would be welcome and appreciated.

TNN:  Yes, especially for transitional living.

GY:  Exactly. Oh, and look at these new young, freshly out of college students, they're now opting to be just like they were in college with four or six in a one bedroom. And they get tiny little spaces within it.


TNN:   Herb has been pretty secretive about how he spends his discretionary funds, would you be transparent with how your discretionary funds are spent?

GY:  I'm going to be transparent in all the things I do. So yes. I also want the public to know how our money is spent. Not just for me but for everybody.  There is something wrong with the fact that each district gets different amounts of discretionary funds. You probably are aware they receive money for allowing billboards; they get money when they sell furniture, when city real estate is sold in their district. It's like, "Wait, shouldn't that just go to the city pot?" But it doesn't. It comes to the council office. So one district may get $5 million and another just may only be able to get $1 million. That doesn't seem fair.

I know it's going to be hard for people to give up, if you're the district that gets the 5 or10 million a year versus the district that only gets one or two million, it's going to be hard to get the guys who get the five and ten to say, "It should go into the same pot then divide it all equally."  If we share the pot and get it distributed evenly, that would be fair. I'm looking for some fairness.

I think government should be much more responsive and government needs to be prepared for these big pandemics. I think it has shown us how unprepared we are. I would like to be a councilwoman who goes in, takes care of the needs of the present, but also plans for future crises so that we're prepared.

I think the example I'll give is one I learned from my father. He drilled it into me at an early age. It was the ice cube tray. It needed to always be full. I was not allowed to take one or two and not refill the water. Right? My dad would look at that tray and I'd get scolded if it wasn't always full because he just believes in being prepared. You would never see my parents not having enough gas. Some people they take their gas all the way to the quarter line or to the empty line before refilling. In our family, if it went past half it was filled. Preparation is something that was definitely drilled into me as a child. I can't tell you how many times I got called into the kitchen. "Grace, is this tray not full? Didn't I tell you?" I think it's a good visual of how I believe Government should be behaving.”


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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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