Bid to move L.A. elections faces growing opposition from candidates

Officeholders would get a one-time extension of 18 months until L.A.'s new voting calendar kicked in

The campaign to combine Los Angeles' elections with state and federal contests has been hailed by backers as a way to lift the city's dismal turnout, which in the last mayoral race was 23%.

But more than a dozen candidates for City Council now say that they oppose the idea, claiming it could make races more expensive and give a leg up to incumbents and others backed by special interests.

Charter Amendments 1 and 2 were put on the March 3 ballot by the council to reverse a decline in voter participation during the odd-year city and school board elections. On the campaign trail, however, several candidates — some experiencing their first brush with the election process — have begun warning that the date change would have other, less positive, consequences.

In a Silver Lake-to-Sherman Oaks district, eight of the 14 candidates running to replace termed-out Councilman Tom LaBonge have come out against the charter measures — one to shift city elections, the other to move school board races. In a Crenshaw-to-Koreatown race, activist Grace Yoo has argued against the proposals as she wages a challenge to Council President Herb Wesson. And on the Eastside, three of the four candidates looking to unseat Councilman Jose Huizar have been advising voters to reject the measures.

"A yes vote would put grass-roots candidates like myself completely out of the running," said community activist Mario Chavez, a former union organizer running against Huizar.

Backers of the two ballot measures have already been fending off criticism over contributions they have accepted from billboard companies, real estate developers and other groups with business before City Hall. Dermot Givens, a Los Angeles-based political consultant not involved in this year's Los Angeles elections, said the number of candidates opposing the measures now suggests that they are hearing similar complaints from voters.

"It's the people talking about it that are forcing the candidates to talk about it," he said.

At a candidates' forum last week, Huizar was the only candidate onstage to defend the two measures. Los Angeles leaders, he said, need to spare voters from having to head to polls just after the state and national contests conducted in even-numbered years. "In order for us to increase public participation, we need to lessen voter fatigue, because we are asking voters to go out over and over," he said.

For opponents of the two measures, one of the biggest sticking points is a provision that would give the mayor, council members, school board members and other Los Angeles office holders an extra 18 months in office. That benefit would be provided to any candidate elected this spring or in 2017.

Huizar and Wesson currently face term limits in June 2019. If both win reelection, and voters agree to change the election dates, they would be permitted to stay in office until December 2020. Critics say that would make it easier for them to run for other political offices in that year's election, such as county supervisor or a seat in the Legislature.

Former Assemblyman Wally Knox, one of the candidates running to replace LaBonge, said the 18-month extension was the deciding factor in his decision to vote no. In an email, Knox took that position even though he thinks a switch to even-numbered years is "a sound idea."

The expansion of council terms by a year and a half "is something I can't agree with," he said. "If the policy is so compelling, couldn't council show dramatic leadership by accepting a term reduction instead of an expansion?"

Four months ago, council members were warned that language giving politicians extra time in office could wind up being a deal breaker for voters. Dan Schnur, who heads USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, told a council committee that such a provision would make the campaign against the two measures "much, much easier."

"If I were running the campaign against this proposal, which I am not, an additional year and a half [in office] ... would make a pretty juicy target," he said at the time.

Schnur, now a co-chairman of the campaign, said Friday that many of the measures' backers are not thrilled about longer terms. But a move to shorten terms for candidates who had already filed to run in the March 3 election would have been vulnerable to a legal challenge, he said.

"If you're running against an incumbent, or what they call City Hall insiders, this is a handy club with which to beat up on City Hall," he said. "It's savvy politics." Still, Schnur said he does not think the emerging opposition from various council candidates is a sign of trouble for the two ballot measures.

When the council put the charter amendments on the ballot, several members characterized them as the single most effective tool to bring out more voters, particularly those who are young, black or Latino. Other California cities that conduct elections in even-numbered years during state and national contests have seen much higher voter participation, even on down ballot races such as mayor and council, they said.

Wesson, the architect behind the two ballot measures, has described the issue of voter turnout as a personal one. But since the council's vote, others at City Hall are refusing to say how they would vote. Mayor Eric Garcetti declined to take a position last week, as did Councilman Mitch O'Farrell. Councilwoman Nury Martinez, running for reelection in a central San Fernando Valley district, said through a spokeswoman that she will leave the decision to voters.

"She's not really taken a stand on it because in the long run she wants more solutions that deal with informing voters," spokeswoman Linda Serrato-Ybarra said in an email.

Such tepid responses could make voters more reluctant to shift election schedules, said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge. "If there's uncertainty, people do tend to vote no," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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