Independent groups step up spending in L.A. City Council race

Independent groups are stepping up their spending in the L.A. City Council race for Tom LaBonge's seat

In his bid to win a Los Angeles City Council seat, candidate David Ryu swore off accepting campaign money from local developers, people who buy land for construction projects that require city approval.

But tens of thousands of dollars from one local developer is still going to help his election bid, via an independent committee not run by Ryu's campaign.

That spending has spurred barbs from the camp of opponent Carolyn Ramsay. But the Ryu campaign is quick to point out that Ramsay is backed partly with money from an oil company — also through a committee not controlled by her campaign.

With barely a week before the hotly contested election, independent groups are starting to pour money into the runoff between Ryu and Ramsay, who are vying to replace termed-out Councilman Tom LaBonge in one of the more affluent, politically involved districts in L.A.

Under city rules, such groups can raise and spend unlimited money to champion a candidate as long as they don't coordinate plans with his or her campaign. But because those outside groups are supposed to operate independently, they can sometimes do things that undercut the messages that candidates are trying to craft. They can also trigger political attacks if they are bankrolled by unpopular or controversial groups.

Stelee Industries, described by its president as a development company, has devoted $35,000 to an independent committee promoting Ryu to Latino voters, according to committee filings. So far, the group has spent more than $13,000 on phone banking to support him. Stelee Industries President Steve S. Lee said he backed Ryu, a City Hall outsider, because "we need a change from the old guard in the council." Lee, a Korean American, was also excited that Ryu would be the first Korean American on the council.

"I'm a developer — but I don't own a thing in his district," Lee said, adding that he had not communicated with Ryu or his campaign since launching the committee.

The Ryu campaign itself, which had accepted a $700 donation from Lee, said it was returning the check after hearing from The Times that Lee called himself a developer. The Ramsay campaign has pointed out that Ryu is still accepting campaign money from developers who work outside of L.A. and had lent money to his campaign after selling his home to a developer.

"It's not surprising that a developer is doubling down for David Ryu with unlimited spending in the final days," Ramsay campaign strategist Doug Herman said of the outside spending by Stelee, calling the campaign pledge "his biggest gimmick."

When asked about the outside spending, Ryu campaign spokeswoman Rachel Estrada said that "the sheer historic nature of the race has given many people cause tosupportDavid, even if it's against their own business interests."

Ryu is also benefiting from mailers and phone calls funded by the county Democratic Party committee and has been promoted by a third committee financed by Korean American donors. They include retiree Chong Kwon, who has given $40,000 since the March primary, and Laborers Local 300, a union for construction and maintenance workers that contributed $10,000. The same committee, Neighbors for a Better L.A. in Support of David Ryu, spent more than $53,000 to promote Ryu before the March primary.

Meanwhile, mailers backing Ramsay are headed to households from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce political action committee, which lists its major funding as $130,000 from Chevron Corp. and Onni Contracting, part of a group of companies that does development projects. The chamber group has spent roughly $6,400 so far supporting Ramsay.

"Ms. Ramsay is trying to sell herself to voters as the candidate who'll protect the environment and the neighborhoods, yet she's being propped up by a billion-dollar oil company and a developer who's famous for building 50-story condo buildings," Estrada said.

Ruben Gonzalez, a senior vice president for the chamber, said that Chevron is one of dozens of companies that give annually to its political action committee to back "business-friendly candidates" in many races and that Chevron and Onni gave "well before" the chamber endorsed Ramsay.

Herman, the Ramsay campaign strategist, responded to the criticism by saying that her "record on stopping unwanted development and supporting the environment" had gotten Ramsay the endorsements of the Sierra Club and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

After the March primary, Ramsay urged Ryu to join her in rejecting independent spending: Ramsay said that if Ryu joined her, and any independent committees ignored the call and spent money to promote her, she would donate the same amount in campaign funds to charity. But after Ryu declined, the Ramsay campaign said that plan was off the table.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from L.A. City Hall

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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