The runoff election pitting Sheila Kuehl against Bobby Shriver for an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is shaping up to be a pivotal contest that could shift the balance of power on a panel with regionwide influence.
The winner will join a board flanked on one side by two labor-friendly Democrats, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and newly elected Hilda Solis, and two Republicans, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe.
Retiring Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has played a centrist role on the board for decades, pursuing progressive social policies and programs while often serving as a fiscal watchdog willing to say no to county labor unions.
Kuehl, a former state lawmaker, and Shriver, a former Santa Monica councilman, are both liberal-leaning candidates with largely similar platforms.
During the primary election, West Hollywood Councilman John Duran, who finished third in Tuesday's primary, positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Kuehl and Shriver, in the style of Yaroslavsky.
On Wednesday, Duran said the winner of the two-way November election will need to move closer to the center to appeal to moderate Democrats, independents and San Fernando Valley Republicans who have been part of Yaroslavsky's enduring coalition in the west county district.
"Whoever ultimately wins this seat has a huge responsibility to keep the county in a strong financial condition moving forward," Duran said.
The importance of the race is likely to step up campaign contributions from special interests, such as unions, contractors and business groups, and prompt a spurt of spending by independent political committees that can accept unlimited donations. The top three candidates spent $3.5 million in the primary election alone.
"There will be prodigious fundraising on both sides and it's going to be a competitive race," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
Kuehl and Shriver now must jockey to expand their bases and distinguish themselves to the district's diverse blocs of independent and conservative voters, analysts said.
"People in the 3rd District are moderate to progressive," Yaroslavsky said Wednesday. "They believe in being fiscally responsible. I think both common sense and politics dictate that no one, on fiscal issues, be too far off center."
Against that backdrop, endorsements by Yaroslavsky and Duran, who captured 16% of the vote, take on more significance in the runoff. Unofficial returns show Kuehl led with 36% of the vote, compared with 29% for Shriver.
Yaroslavsky has not decided yet whether he will make an endorsement in the race, but praised both candidates. "This is not going to be a choice of the lesser of two evils," he said.
Duran said Kuehl and Shriver have contacted him, but he also is reserving judgment. He said he is looking for Kuehl to bring some "really strong, pro-business and pro-economic development people to her side." Shriver, he said, must demonstrate an ability to bring together "working-class and urban people and people that are very different from himself."
Both Duran and Kuehl are openly gay and well-known in the district's large community of gay voters. "It's a complex political issue for me," Duran said.
A Times analysis of Tuesday's vote showed the range of Kuehl's strength and how a Duran endorsement might help, particularly for Shriver.
Kuehl won in the political hometowns of Shriver and Duran — Santa Monica and West Hollywood, respectively — where each had been elected to City Council seats. Neighborhoods where she ran strongest and won more than 40% of the vote included West Los Angeles, Pacific Palisades, Venice, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills and Sherman Oaks.
She also carried the cities of Beverly Hills, Agoura Hills and the portion of the city of Los Angeles in the 3rd District. Shriver ran strongest in scattered areas of the Westside, the Santa Monica Mountains and the northern ring of the San Fernando Valley, including more heavily Latino neighborhoods in the northeast Valley. The only city Shriver carried was San Fernando, which is predominantly Latino.
In many precincts and cities across the district Shriver and Kuehl ran close, with Duran supporters making up what could be the difference in the November runoff. In his hometown of West Hollywood and small but Republican-leaning Westlake Village, he won more than 25% of the vote.
The changes on the board are coming as the county faces a host of tough issues in coming years, many of them brought about by recent scandals. Supervisors must work with a new sheriff to root out abusive treatment of inmates, and to build a new jail, even as current and former deputies face federal charges of abuse. The troubled foster care system is in the midst of a series of costly reforms and the rollout of Obamacare threatens to pull county healthcare users away from its huge network of hospitals and clinics and into the private market. Three-year labor contracts were recently negotiated with the county's 100,000-strong workforce, but balancing the financial interests of employees and the public will be a continuing issue for the new board.
Kuehl and Shriver received backing from unions in the primary and probably will court labor in the runoff. The powerful County Federation of Labor, representing more than 700,000 unionized workers countywide, has not yet endorsed a candidate in the race.
Two independent expenditure committees were formed during the primary campaign by business interests to support Shriver's candidacy. There is likely to be more such activity in the runoff, Levinson said.
But that spending, which can't be coordinated with candidates, can carry political risks, Levinson noted. In last year's L.A. mayoral contest, Wendy Greuel won labor's backing and more than $3 million in support from independent groups, much of it from a union representing Department of Water and Power workers. She lost to Eric Garcetti, who portrayed himself as a more fiscally responsible choice who would stand up to labor pressure for richer contracts.
"Independent spending can backfire,'' Levinson said. "Wendy Greuel became 'The DWP's mayor.' That did not help her."
Times staff writers Emily Alpert Reyes, Garrett Therolf, Abby Sewell and Ben Welsh contributed to this article.