Tight race for LaBonge City Council seat looks headed for runoff

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Four years ago, the last time these same offices had elections, voter turnout was 14.1%.

The only mystery remaining late Tuesday in Los Angeles' City Council election was which two of several tightly bunched contenders would land in the May 19 runoff to succeed termed-out Councilman Tom LaBonge.

Narrowly leading the 14-candidate field was LaBonge aide Carolyn Ramsay, followed closely by community health director David Ryu, with slightly more than 80% of the votes counted in unofficial returns.

But within striking distance were nonprofit director Tomas O'Grady, attorney Teddy David, attorney Wally Knox and community college trustee Steve Veres.

"Every vote counts," said Ryu, who had led most of the night only to be overtaken by Ramsay. "I hope this election shows people that."

Ryu led the crowd in fundraising, but he credited his strong showing to knocking on thousands of doors and his persistent message that he would listen to residents.

"People said to me, 'I've lived here for 26 years and you are the first politician to ever come to my door,'" he said.

Ryu added that it wasn't his money that made the difference -- it was where his money came from. He said more than half of his donors gave $100 or less.

"I didn't have the support of any establishment," he said. "We had to build this from scratch."

Earlier in the evening, incumbent City Councilman Jose Huizar declared victory in his bid to win reelection against former county Supervisor Gloria Molina and three other challengers, according to unofficial election returns.

“We did it,” Huizar told supporters who had gathered in a high school gym.

The two-term councilman, representing the 14th District that includes downtown and Eagle Rock, held a 3 to 1 margin over Molina with almost 70% of the votes counted. He was heavily backed by labor and business groups, and enjoyed a huge fundraising advantage.

All four other council incumbents were also piling up vote totals well beyond the simple majorities needed to win reelection late Tuesday as ballots continued to be counted.

Community organizer Marqueece Harris-Dawson also appeared to be winning outright in the 8th District, where South Los Angeles Councilman Bernard C. Parks is termed out.

Councilman Mitchell Englander ran unopposed.

Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who faced perhaps the stiffest challenge of any incumbent, all but claimed victory in her rematch with former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez as the ballot tallying continued into the evening.

“We feel very good,” Martinez said shortly after showing up at her election night party in Sun Valley about 9:15, with her daughter, Isabelle, 6, in tow.

“I’m so proud to be able to serve a full term,” said Martinez, who won her seat in a special election 18 months ago. “And I’m so happy the voters sent a message they want to work together another four years.”

Councilman Jose Huizar was handily fending off a challenge from former county Supervisor Gloria Molina and three other candidates in his bid for a third and final term in the 14th District, which includes a revitalizing downtown Los Angeles and much of the city’s Eastside.

In an interview, Huizar said he was "very encouraged" by the results. "I think this was a testament to all the work we've done over nine years," he said. "The voters spoke to it."

Huizar said that as a councilman, he has focused on trimming more trees, repaving more streets and fixing more sidewalks. He said he thinks that "despite the city's shortcomings," he's been able to make improvements in his district.  "Basic city services, that's what voters care about," he said.

Meanwhile, backers of two measures to shift Los Angeles city and school board votes to higher-turnout election years declared victory after an initial count showed the measures had lopsided leads in absentee ballots.

Charter Amendments 1 and 2, which would move L.A. elections from odd to even-numbered years to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial voting cycles, was leading with 77% of the mail-in ballots totaling more than 70,000 votes. The count of votes cast Tuesday, as well as late-arriving absentee ballots, was continuing. 

"This is a great win for the people of Los Angeles -- tonight they won back their elections from the special interests who have controlled local politics for far too long," said Dan Schnur, a co-chair of Citizens for Increased Voter Participation and former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Turnout was expected to be particularly low as the ballot did not include any citywide races. Four years ago, the last time these same offices had elections, voter turnout was 14.1%. In the 2013 primary, which included campaigns for mayor, city attorney and controller, 21% of voters participated.

Charter amendment supporters said moving city and school board elections would lead to greater voter participation, while opponents argued that the move would favor incumbents and cause local races to become even more expensive. If both charter amendments pass, the new schedule would take effect in 2020. Approval would also allow politicians to serve an extra 18 months in office so their terms can catch up with the new election schedule.

One of the most-watched races Tuesday was between Huizar and Molina. The downtown councilman raised significantly more money than Molina and three other challengers, social worker Nadine Diaz, community activist Mario Chavez and political consultant John O’Neil. Huizar received $866,334 in contributions, and Molina raised $225,456. Much of the race focused on development and transportation priorities.

Half of the council’s 15 seats were on the ballot. In the 4th District, which stretches from Los Feliz to Sherman Oaks, 14 candidates ran to replace LaBonge.

Another competitive race was in South Los Angeles, where four candidates hoped to succeed Parks.

The eastern part of the San Fernando Valley saw a rematch of the 2013 election between incumbent Martinez and Montanez. In that contest, Martinez beat out Montanez, a former executive with the Department of Water and Power.

Council President Herb Wesson was up for reelection in the 10th District, which includes Koreatown and the Crenshaw area. Community organizer Grace Yoo and theologian Delaney “Doc” Smith were also on the ballot.

Councilman Paul Krekorian and writer Eric Preven ran in the 2nd District.

Follow @TheCityMaven and @jeanmerl for more news about Los Angeles government.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:10 pm: This post has been updated with the latest election results.

10:08 pm: This post has been updated with Charter Amendment backers declaring victory.

10:43 pm: This post has been updated with updated council race results.

11:09 pm: This post has Huizar declaring victory.

12:14 pm: This post has Carolyn Ramsay taking the lead.

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