The first thing on Herb J. Wesson’s agenda after his swearing-in as president on Jan. 3, could be whipping the Los Angeles City Council into shape, although those are not his words. Actually, what he wants to do is make the Council “run more smoothly–no multiple issues on the agenda, no lengthy debates and just work on streamlining things and making it more effective.”

He outlined the president’s role as presiding over the Council, setting the agenda (along with the city clerk’s office), and placing members on certain committees, among several other duties.

“And when the mayor is out of town, I’m the man,” said Wesson. “I just might rename the city Herbville,” he said, laughing, but then quickly reminded the interviewer that he was just joking.

But it is no joke that the 60-year-old Wesson is proud to become the first African American president of the Council.

“It’s way up there,” he said when asked to rank it in relation to other important events in his life.

“It’s a very historic honor. I would say that after the birth of my children and grandchildren, it ranks up there with being Speaker of the California State Assembly. It matters to us as a people.

It’s one more American barrier that we’ve broken through, one more barrier that’s been removed.

“The importance is equal,” he said. “They are two critical posts. I’m still kinda shocked that in my lifetime I would be Speaker and president of Council. These are challenging times we’re facing, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Current Council President Eric Garcetti, who nominated Wesson to succeed him in the post, will step down on Jan. 2. Garcetti is positioning himself to devote more time to campaign for mayor.

While Wesson’s ascension to the Council presidency comes with an overwhelming vote of confidence by the legislative body, all is not well, especially concerning the other two African American councilmembers–Jan Perry and Bernard Parks–neither of whom was present to vote on the matter on Nov. 23. Parks called in with the flu and Perry had an excused absence. Both had earlier declined to say whether they would support Wesson.

Weeks before, Perry, who is also running for mayor, had resigned as president pro tempore in reaction to behind-the-scene-deals being fomented between Garcetti and Wesson. Parks was upset that a high-level aide to Wesson had been “appointed to run the 21-member commission that will redraw district maps,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

On the other hand, among the large group in attendance were Police Chief Charlie Beck, former city commissioner Christopher Pak, African American current and former politicians, including Assemblyman Mike Davis, former state lieutenant general Mervyn Dymally and former City Councilman Nate Holden.

Wesson seems unperturbed. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m focused on the future and not the past,” he said.

Wesson began his political career in the 10th District, and in 2005, wound up right back where his career began. But it wasn’t a move backward. In fact, in some ways it was a huge move forward.

Wesson started as chief of staff to former 10th Councilman Nate Holden in 1987. When Holden chose not to retire, Wesson moved over to serve Los Angeles County Second District Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke as her chief of staff in 1992.

In 1998, Wesson saw his opportunity to rise from a simple “longtime operative in downtown politics” to state Assemblyman. With 47th District incumbent Kevin Murray preparing to launch a campaign for Diane Watson’s 26th District state Senate seat, Wesson seized his opportunity.

But in vying for Murray’s seat, Wesson, then Burke’s chief of staff, had to oppose Samuel Joey Hill, Murray’s chief of staff. Wesson appeared to have the edge financially, but while his experience was based in local government, Hill had the edge in state government.

Wesson won, and went on to distinguish himself in Sacramento. He spent six years in the Assembly before bowing to term limits. But from 2002 to 2004 he served as Speaker of the Assembly, the second Black to do so. The first was Willie Brown. At the end of those two years, he returned to work with Supervisor Burke, this time as a senior adviser and special assistant.

But on Nov. 8, 2005, Wesson stormed back into the city’s 10th Councilmanic District, winning the seat with almost 80 percent of the vote.

As an article in the Los Angeles Weekly noted, the council seat is actually a considerable upgrade from the Assembly, and other Los Angeles-based state politicians are expected to follow in Wesson’s footsteps. The reason is simple, according to the L.A. Weekly.

“The state Assembly jobs paid $110,880 in 2005 (a citizens commission in 2009 cut the salaries to $95,291) plus a generous daily per diem,” said the Dec. 8 article. “But thanks to an obscure city law, Los Angeles City Council salaries had ballooned to $150,000 in 2005 (automatic raises have since boosted members’ pay to $178,789)–and came with far cushier public benefits, including eight free cars and free gasoline for every Council member.

“Add to that the Council’s larger staffs (18 to 25 personal aides), more power and a shorter commute to First and Spring, and a job in the Legislature begins to look like a crappy summer internship.”

It has been a remarkable ride for Wesson, the Cleveland, Ohio, native whose biography describes him as “the son of blue-collar parents who taught him the value of hard work and persistence.”

Wesson dropped out of the predominantly Black Lincoln University during his senior year due to his father’s illness. But he had promised his parents he would get his degree. He did in 1998, 30 years later, while campaigning for the Assembly. He did it by a combination of correspondence courses and classes at local community colleges.

Who the councilmembers may not know is Wesson “as the hero.”

Asked to reveal something that is unknown about his life, Wesson said he had saved two people’s lives.

The first occurred when he was a Boy Scout of about 12 or 13. He and several others were on an ill-conceived hiking trip during a winter blizzard, when many of the young men became separated. As he headed back, Wesson said he heard a voice, and it turned out to be one of his Scout buddies in distress. He dragged him about two miles to a place where they were able to find help.

The second occurred when he was 25, living here in Los Angeles in an apartment with his mother.

There was a fire in one of the units and he heard someone coughing. Wesson said he yanked away the screen door, rushed in and found a woman asleep on a bed. She had apparently been cooking–and drinking–and had fallen asleep with food on the stove. Wesson said he picked up and carried her downstairs to safety. “She was a large woman and I weighed about 125 pounds,” he said. “She was still snoring until I got her out of the house.”

If the city needs a hero, there may be at least one in the Council.