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Mike Hernandez (born December 4, 1952 in Pleasanton California) is a political activist in the Los Angeles Latino community who organized students to participate in the Chicano Moratorium, helped register over 25,000 new Latino voters in one year and was the Founding Chair of Plaza de La Raza Head Start Inc. where he helped develop 17 Head Start Enters.
Elected in 1991 in a special election to complete the unfinished term of previous Councilmember Gloria Molina who had moved on to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Hernandez became only the fourth Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council since the election of Edward Roybal in 1948. While in office Hernandez, much to the chagrin of his then council colleagues, often reminded his constituents and the Latino community at-large that his district was the result of a landmark court case mandating that a Latino district be created because of the gerrymandering that had occurred in previous decades.
While drawing much of his early electoral support from voters of the Northeast Los Angeles communities that made up much of his district, Hernandez represented some of the poorest areas of the city including MacArthur Park, Westlake and Pico Union. Regardless, Hernandez understood that each of the neighborhoods he represented were largely young immigrant communities that had been all but forgotten by civic leaders. With limited social infrastructure and almost no access to city resources Hernandez, a trained organizer, began to unite community leaders and together during his decade-long tenure between 1991 and 2001, either spearheaded or laid the groundwork for much of the transformations that have since occurred in what was once his district.
Zones of Need
Shortly after his election, Hernandez quickly began to build the argument, as if one needed to be made, that his district was people rich and resource poor. In order to do this, Hernandez turned to the most recent census data and created a series of maps he deemed “the Zones of Need” that he released in the Fall of 1992.
This data acted as a launching point for much of the legislation Hernandez was to champion during his early years as a council member and gave weight to the argument that his district was being short-changed causing one writer to note about Hernandez:
Pasadena Gold Line
Indeed, early in his tenure Hernandez was immediately challenged by the impending arrival of what was then referred to as the Pasadena Blue Line (now called the Pasadena Gold Line). Officials at the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) had originally intended the line to traverse the Northeast Los Angeles communities of Highland Park, Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights at speeds upwards of 60 miles per hour. Moreover, plans for the line included the construction of an 18-foot ‘sound wall’, an above grade separation at North Figueroa Street and Marmion Way and limited stations along the line. An angry Hernandez who often noted that the five freeway off-ramps in his district were designed for commuters trying to pass through his communities rather than for the people who actually lived in them, publicly denounced the Blue Line Plans as more of the same. More importantly however, as the council representative for the area, Hernandez clearly understood his land-use discretion and that if the light rail was to traverse his district, then the residents of the impacted neighborhoods were going to have a voice in its development.
Finally, after years of back-and-forth negotiation between the now Gold-Line authority (of which Hernandez was also a part), and Northeast Los Angeles residents, construction plans were adopted that eliminated the 18-foot sound wall that Hernandez and residents argued only served to separate neighborhoods and act as a potential graffiti wall for area taggers; slowed the train down to a maximum speed of just over 30 miles an hour; included a brand new stations in Chinatown, Avenue 26, French Avenue and at the foot of the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington near what was to become a child-care center at the historic Zeigler House Mansion which Hernandez also created, and forced the train to go underground as opposed to above-grade at the corner of Figueroa Street and Marmion Way.
Shortly after taking office, Hernandez threatened to file suit against the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) who, during the 5-month hiatus of any representation between the time Gloria Molina moved to the County Board of Supervisors and Hernandez was elected to replace her, constructed a maintenance facility at a nearby rail yard without producing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). As part of the settlement, LACTC agreed to fund a series of community workshops for local residents.
In one of the most ambitious undertakings in his young administration which would ultimately lead to a wholesale change of the Northeast Los Angeles community of Cypress Park where he grew up, Hernandez put a call out to his community to attend critical planning meetings, an announcement which was picked up and published thus in the Los Angeles Times on November 12, 1992:
The workshops were funded by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) who were forced to do so under threat of a lawsuit by the City of Los Angeles which Hernandez initiated.
Beyond the changes that the report would finally bring to the community, also key was the manner in which each of the meetings was conducted. Long considered a disinterested community by other political leaders who had little connection to the largely Latino and mono-lingual Spanish speaking community, Hernandez and his staff ensured meetings were extremely well attended and that they be conducted in both English and Spanish. Large cafeteria length tables were laid out and maps of the entire 250 acres of land were depicted. Residents were advised about zoning restrictions but were encouraged to envision what the dilapidated railroad yard could one day look like. They were then given post-its and encouraged to write down what they would like to see take hold and place it where they would like to see it. While this may have been commonplace in other communities, in 1992 such had never been the case in this particular area of the city. These meetings also laid the groundwork for future community input meetings whereby Hernandez would often need to bully departments to bring their resources out to the community turning nearly each of Hernandez’ evening community meetings into was is today commonly referred as community resource fairs.
The ensuing report known locally as the Taylor Yard Study, set-forth in motion a series of historic changes that today have resulted in the creation of acres of park space,community housing, local high schools and a thriving supermarket.
In 1996, Hernandez wrote one of the last open space ballot initiatives to pass in the City of Los Angeles known as Proposition K. Hernandez, noting the initiative’s lettered named “K” stood for “Kids”, traversed the City for months leading up to the election raising money for the campaign while lobbying communities, both rich and poor, throughout Los Angeles for their support. Hernandez’ efforts paid off as the initiative was approved by Los Angeles voters by the narrowest of margins.
Once passed, Prop K created a citywide assessment district for a term of 30 years generating $25 million each year. Funds raised through Proposition K are specifically for the acquisitions of land for open space purposes, and the improvement, construction, and maintenance of parks, recreation, childcare and community facilities. Hernandez’ initiative, by the year 2026, will have raised a total of $750 million for these purposes as funds continue to be generated to this day.
While immigration did not fall under the purview of the Los Angeles City Council, this did not deter Hernandez from confronting the issue head-on and being heralded, to this day, as one of the most ardent defenders of the immigrant community. Indeed, during his early tenure, particularly in the communities of MacArthur Park, Westlake and Pico Union Hernandez was highly regarded as the only Latino elected official to aggressively defend the rights of the immigrant community. Hernandez earned this reputation, in large part, for his work during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It was during this time that Hernandez, working closely with a network of community organizations in the area, took to both the streets and local Spanish Television outlets in the early hours following the Rodney King verdicts urging peace in his district and asking residents to stay home. Residents responded to Hernandez and other community leaders which limited damage to the area until, due to a lack of resources, the Los Angeles Police Department abandoned these neighborhoods and, the city, in their stead brought in INS officials who, began conducting a series of immigration sweeps. These sweeps enraged Hernandez who within hours began to complain to his colleagues and then Mayor Tom Bradley culminating in a Hernandez sponsored City Council Resolution removing INS officials from the area altogether.
Hernandez further enhanced his standing in the immigrant community two years later during the heated California Proposition 187 ballot iniative—and effort that would have prevented undocumented immigrants from receiving health care and a public education among other services. Hernandez, who in his years before taking office helped ensure that immigrants who had been detained for being undocumented would be eligible to be bonded (bail bond) out of jail, once again rose to the defense of his community. So adept had he become in debating against what he considered a hateful and racist initiative, that even the authors of the initiative and its strongest supporters outright refused to debate Hernandez publicly.
Arrest and Rehabilitation
In August 1997, shortly after suffering the devastating loss of his mother Beatrice “Bea” Hernandez who had raised him by herself and with whom Hernandez spoke daily, Hernandez was apprehended by law enforcement officials (including the Los Angeles Police Department whom Hernandez would later thank for saving his life) for drug possession. Immediately thereafter, Hernandez entered a drug rehabilitation center where he began his recuperation.
While calls for his resignation came from various corners of Los Angeles, including several of his own council colleagues, (one of whom years later on Hernandez last day in office would publicly apologize for having given in to the hysteria of the time) efforts to recall Hernandez from office fell flat. In fact, given the low threshold necessary to initiate a recall election, many observers outside Hernandez’ district seemed dumbfounded that the issue never even made it to the ballot. But such was not the case for everyone.
In an October 27, 1997 open letter to the Los Angeles Times, senior statesman and Latino political icon Edward Roybal who many considered to be the moral voice of elected Latino officials throughout Los Angeles, while acknowledging his own disappointment at hearing of Hernandez’ arrest, urged people to forgive Hernandez and may have even implied Hernandez had earned their forgiveness when he wrote:
Indeed, during Hernandez 10-year tenure as a Los Angeles City Councilmember Hernandez is credited with developing the social infrastructure which is still in place today and remains key to securing resources from the City, advocating for the construction of multiple libraries throughout his one-time district, advocating for the rights of children and their families and creating a three decade funding mechanism for recreation and parks throughout all Los Angeles.
- Chair: Community and Economic Development Committee
- Vice-Chair: Governmental Efficiency Committee
- Member: Intergovernmental Relations Committee
- “Hernandez… called for greater attention by city government to ‘zones of need’--neighborhoods that suffer disproportionately from poverty, substandard housing, unemployment and lack of education. Hernandez released demographic studies to more precisely delineate the substandard socioeconomic zones, including much of his own 1st District near downtown. “[Los Angeles Times-CALIFORNIA | LOCAL: LOS ANGELES : More Aid Is Urged for 'Zones of Need' October 15, 1992]
- “What unsettled many of the council members about Hernandez was that he seriously tried to argue that the wealthier neighborhoods took the resources that should be used in the inner city.” [Anything But Mexican, Chicanos In Contemporary Los Angeles by Rodolfo Acuna]
- "Councilman Mike Hernandez has organized a three-day public workshop, beginning Friday, for area residents to discuss development of the 250-acre Taylor Yard. Representatives from the American Institute of Architects will interview participants about what types of projects would best serve the public's needs. The architects will include the comments in a report to Hernandez, which will guide him in discussions with prospective developers…” [Los Angeles Times NEWS -Northeast L.A. : Workshops on Taylor Yard, November 12, 1992]
- “During his absence, I saw what many others throughout the city saw: his constituents defending him. I think that it would be safe to say, however, that they were not so much defending him because he is a well-liked man or a "nice guy," but rather they were defending him because of the work that he has done…” [Los Angeles Times/ Op-Ed; Give Hernandez a Second Chance--City Council: His district and the Latino community need him.October 27, 1997|EDWARD R. ROYBAL ]
|Los Angeles City Councilman