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Long-shot L.A. municipal candidates depend on Internet

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As recently as two months ago, David R. Hernandez said, he didn't even know what Facebook was. Today, he uses the popular Internet social-networking site to help spread the word about his steeply uphill campaign for Los Angeles mayor in Tuesday's municipal primary.

"I now have about 500 'friends' [on Facebook], and I am able to get them all news about my campaign in less than two minutes," said Hernandez, who also has run for Congress (twice), county supervisor and community college district trustee -- falling short each time.

The 60-year-old chamber of commerce chief and community activist has joined dozens of other underfunded, lesser-known candidates for city offices in adding the Internet to the limited arsenal of inexpensive tools for reaching voters.

Many of these candidates have websites, which they use to introduce themselves to voters, post homemade campaign commercials and even solicit contributions, though without much success, judging by campaign finance reports on file with the city.

"My main boost is the fact that TV, The Times, the radio stations are interviewing all the candidates and I can link all that to my blog, www.ladailyblog.com, and my website, www.zumatimes.com," said David "Zuma Dogg" Saltsburg, a community activist from Venice.

Saltsburg last week was questioned by police for allegedly threatening mayoral candidate Craig X Rubin, which Saltsburg denied. He said he is the only one of the 10 mayoral candidates who regularly attends City Council meetings. And that includes Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is heavily favored to win reelection.

"Internet technology has created campaign opportunities for underfunded candidates that didn't exist before," said Steven Afriat, a veteran Los Angeles political consultant who is not involved in any of Tuesday's municipal contests. But technology cannot make up for a weak message or an unqualified candidate, Afriat added. Otherwise, he said, "the Internet just becomes the lipstick on the pig."

Even a sharp candidate with a good Internet campaign still needs a lot of money to reach voters in a city as large and sprawling as Los Angeles. Villaraigosa, according to the latest campaign finance records, has raised more than $3 million for the race, despite his odds-on-favorite status; his nearest challenger, Walter Moore, reported about $208,000, including $67,872 in taxpayer matching funds. By comparison, the top fundraiser among the other eight -- Hernandez -- had collected only about $4,400. (None of the other eight received matching funds.)

Only the races with no incumbents -- for city attorney, controller and one City Council seat -- are truly competitive.

The campaigns to unseat five incumbents on the Los Angeles City Council are even more lopsided than the mayor's race. A teacher, a lawyer, a businessman, a community activist and an employee of the Department of Water and Power are waging Don Quixote-like efforts.

How outgunned are they? In a district stretching from Watts to San Pedro, Councilwoman Janice Hahn has amassed about $180,000. Her opponent, teacher Chris Salabaj, has raised less than $1,000.

In the city's coastal Westside neighborhoods, Councilman Bill Rosendahl has raised nearly $241,000. His opponent, DWP employee Harry Wilson, has less than $1,000. And in the west San Fernando Valley, Councilman Dennis Zine has raised nearly $309,000. His opponent, business owner Jeff Bornstein, has raised less than $1,000.

The one council challenger putting up a serious fight is Gary Slossberg, a teacher and lawyer who is trying to unseat Council President Eric Garcetti in a district stretching from Echo Park to Hollywood. Slossberg has been knocking on doors and sent out at least one campaign mailer criticizing Garcetti for approving a legal settlement that allowed as many as 840 new digital signs in Los Angeles.

Slossberg also said the incumbent has been too willing to approve massive development projects, especially in Hollywood. Garcetti refused to debate Slossberg, opting instead to drown out his opponent's message with a commercial that highlights his campaign work for President Obama. The 30-second spot also touts Garcetti's efforts to add more parks and police officers.

Zine and colleague Ed Reyes have also refused to debate their opponents. Only Hahn and Rosendahl have agreed to appear at candidate forums.

In the mayor's race, Villaraigosa has taken heat for refusing to share the dais with his lesser-known competitors at scores of candidate forums that have been held by neighborhood councils and other community groups. At least one opponent, however, said he doesn't fault the mayor.

"He's ahead with the clock running down. There is no way it could benefit him," said actor Phil Jennerjahn, who said he attends nearly every forum to meet as many voters as possible.

"If I don't make the runoff, then it's back to regular life for me," said Jennerjahn, a Hollywood resident making his first bid for elected office.

Two socialists in the race -- legal assistant Carlos Alvarez and union meatpacker James Harris -- are using party websites to help get the word out. Harris spends a lot of his free time campaigning in working-class communities and handing out brochures in front of supermarkets and job sites.

"Working people have to take political power out of the ruling class, build the unions and build a labor party," Harris said, adding he would use the mayor's office to advocate for workers and support their causes.

Alvarez said his campaign consists of the website, attending candidate forums and "walking up and down the streets [of this] great working-class city." Like many of the others who responded to The Times' requests for interviews, Alvarez said he is not discouraged by the long odds nor the often-expressed skepticism about their chances.

"Obviously I do want people to vote for me," Alvarez said. But he added that his campaign has the larger goal of getting people to hear his party's message and to spur them to action.

"Ultimately, that's why I'm out there," Alvarez said, "to deliver a message that needs to be heard."

jean.merl@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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