As L.A. voters from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake head to the polls Tuesday to decide who will represent their sprawling City Council district, former council aide Carolyn Ramsay has a long list of advantages.
A heap of coveted endorsements from City Hall, unions and business groups. An edge in campaign fundraising. And a familiarity with many residents after more than seven years working for Councilman Tom LaBonge, a larger-than-life booster for Los Angeles.
Yet experts warn against underestimating her opponent, David Ryu, a City Hall outsider whose strong showing in the primary surprised many political veterans.
Ryu, a health center development director, has run a scrappy insider-versus-outsider campaign capitalizing on local frustrations with out-of-scale development, shoddy streets, and LaBonge, whose lengthy tenure has polarized some voters in the relatively affluent, politically involved district.
Voter turnout is widely expected to be low in the runoff race, even smaller than in the March primary, when 16.4% of registered voters in the district cast ballots. As a result, analysts say the race could be decided on such a small number of votes that it remains wildly unpredictable.
The race could hinge on a few important factors: Ryu could get a boost from the Korean American community, where many see his run as a historic chance to elect L.A.'s first council member of Korean descent. Though Asian American voters are only a sliver of the District 4 vote, a small but energized base could be decisive if turnout is otherwise lackluster.
Both candidates are making a play for the coveted territory of Sherman Oaks, where neither Ryu nor Ramsay had a strong showing during the primary, which was packed with a dozen other candidates. The San Fernando Valley neighborhood was added to the district when lines were redrawn three years ago and makes up more than a quarter of its potential votes.
"This thing will be won or lost in Sherman Oaks," said Eric Hacopian, a political consultant who isn't working for either campaign.
And in the waning days of the campaign, many expect a deluge of spending by independent committees free to raise and spend as much money as they want — something that could tip the scales in election spending to one candidate or the other.
Ramsay, a former journalist, has stressed her experience inside the district. She wants a "dig once" policy to ensure pipes and other infrastructure are fixed at the same time, sparing streets from being repeatedly torn up. She also has promoted creating a Hollywood Innovation Zone to bring tech and entertainment businesses together. If elected, she would be one of only two women on the 15-member council.
Ryu, who previously worked for then-County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, has campaigned as a change agent. He has pledged to reform the way that council discretionary money is spent and promised not to take campaign donations from local developers, saying trust must be restored among residents wary of the political pull of those who buy land for commercial or residential projects.
The race has been driven by quality-of-life concerns rather than budget issues, said Bill Carrick, a campaign consultant who lives in the district and is not working for either campaign. "Even though there's a hell of a lot of lingering economic difficulty, at least in this relatively affluent district, we have really moved back to the quality-of-life issues which dominated L.A. city politics in the '90s," he said.
With few stark disagreements between the two candidates on policy matters, the race has voters torn between the value of experience versus independence, said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., who has not endorsed a candidate and remains undecided.
"People want change — but they have to decide who is most able to obtain change," Close said.
Another question is how voters feel about how the district has been run under LaBonge, who has won many fans for his hands-on attention to neighborhood issues but has also earned critics in areas such as Hancock Park, where anger has erupted over street repairs, or Beachwood Canyon, where many residents cite dangers caused by a flood of Hollywood sign tourists.
If Ramsay is faced with complaints about what she and her former boss have done at City Hall, however, Ryu has been challenged over how well he knows city government and its workings.
Ramsay has been endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson and the majority of council members, the county labor federation and the Chamber of Commerce. Ryu has picked up support from the county Democratic Party, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, former California State Assembly Speaker John Perez and former LaBonge planning aide Renee Weitzer.
Both sides have lobbed attacks at one another in mailers and the media: The Ramsay campaign accuses Ryu of breaking his promise not to accept money from real estate developers, and points out he loaned money to his own campaign after selling his home to a developer. The Ryu campaign says Ramsay is wrongly counting out-of-town developers who are not covered by the pledge.
Ryu, in turn, has taken aim at Ramsay for accepting developer donations. He has also accused her of flip-flopping on whether the city should run the Greek Theatre, and denounced "frivolous spending" of discretionary money under LaBonge. Ramsay counters she often disagreed with LaBonge and says she has insisted that noise and other issues be addressed no matter who runs the Greek.
Voters will go to the polls this Tuesday, May 19.