L.A. City Councilwoman Nury Martinez isn't one to hang around her City Hall office. Instead, she prefers to be out in the area she represents, the San Fernando Valley's Sixth District, where she holds regular office hours with constituents.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Martinez listened to residents and a former police sergeant talk about the complexities of a lingering problem in the district — street prostitution. It’s a nuisance to neighbors. The girls who are prostituted are often abused. And pimps keep finding younger victims.
"I gotta tell you, as a woman, you know, as a Mom, this just really was, just — it’s incredible. It’s like an entirely different world," Martinez said.
The councilwoman’s efforts to take on the long-standing issue — and to make it a priority during her first few months at City Hall – don’t surprise Fernando Guerra. He’s with the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and he’s followed Martinez’s career for years.
"She’s very community-oriented, is a pretty good quick study in terms of issues, she doesn’t shy away from taking on controversial issues," Guerra said.
Martinez has been in elected office for a decade but she’s still the new kid on the block when it comes to L.A. City Hall. She was elected this summer to fill a vacancy created when Tony Cardenas was elected to Congress. This role comes after stints on the Los Angeles Unified School District board and the San Fernando City Council.
"When I was growing up I knew I wanted to one day run for office, and I saw myself serving on the L.A. City Council – along with Jackie Goldberg and Gloria Molina and Joy Picus and some of these real trailblazers," Martinez said.
"I grew up at a time when there was at least four-to-five women at any given time. Just the fact that there’s only me, one woman on the L.A. City Council, I think it’s really sad."
Martinez isn’t just the only woman on the city council – she’s the only elected female in City Hall. That includes the mayor, city attorney and city controller. According to Guerra, being in the minority like that can present its own challenges.
"The expectation is since you’re the only [woman], that you are going to take up the mantle and have that discussion and be the one at the table who raises the questions that should be raised," Guerra said.
The disappearance of women at City Hall mirrors what’s happening in Sacramento and around the state. According to the group California Women Lead, women hold just 28 percent of seats in the state Legislature, and make up fewer than one-fourth of county supervisors. And of the 12 statewide elected offices, women hold only four.
"When we see a decline at the state level, we also see the decline happening locally," said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead. "And what that means is that our voice, that diversity of thought that women can bring to elected boards, is missing,"
But Martinez says she doesn’t feel like she’s the only one speaking up on what might be seen as women’s issues. She gave the example of recent sexual harassment claims involving one neighborhood council. She says the men on the council were the ones to hold a hearing and refer the issue to the city’s Personnel Department.
"I felt very much like there is an effort to try to address some of these issues, some of these gender issues, and if I have to be the vehicle to do so we will but I feel like the men on the council have been respectful in that," she said. Still, she did second Council President Herb Wesson's recent call for a review of sexual harassment training at City Hall — this on the heels of lawsuits filed against the offices of two council members.
It will be almost two years, until the 2015 municipal election, when another woman could join Martinez in L.A.’s city council chambers.