Bookkeeper, stuntman among 20 candidates in crowded contest for a Los Angeles City Council seat

One candidate running for election in Los Angeles City Council District 7 is a stuntman. Another owns a bar.

Some contenders have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Others have raised nothing. At a recent forum, two candidates wore cowboy boots, while others sported suits. 

The contrasts reflect the diversity of the working-class district and the eclectic field of 20 candidates running for its open seat in the March 7 primary.

All the contenders gathered on a recent Saturday in the cavernous but sparsely filled All Nations Community Church auditorium in Lakeview Terrace. At first, they barely fit on the stage. 

After a rousing rendition of “God Bless America,” each candidate was given a minute to speak. Those who droned on longer were cajoled by the master of ceremonies to stop. 

But it was a line from candidate Bonnie Corwin, a Tujunga bookkeeper, that drew the loudest applause. 

“I have one message,” she yelled. “To the city of Los Angeles, there are 20 candidates up here because we are tired of the way that you are treating us in District 7.”  

The other contenders repeated this theme, and voters expressed their frustration about the lack of attention they’ve received from their elected officials through the years.

“As long as I’ve been alive we’ve been talking about getting more services up here,” said Brian Anderson, 58, an accountant and lifelong Tujunga resident.

The contenders are vying to lead a district that is predominately Latino and has a population of about 277,000. The average annual income is around $45,000, substantially less than the city average. The district’s neighborhoods include Pacoima, Sunland, Tujunga and Sylmar.

“The candidates go from having zero money in the bank to $250,000,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

He said a crowded primary like District 7’s is not uncommon in Los Angeles when there is an open seat and only 500 signatures of registered voters are needed to get on the ballot. Sonenshein predicted a low turnout, something that benefits labor-backed candidates and those with high-profile endorsements.

If no one wins a majority in March, the top two candidates will face a run off on May 16.

For the past decade, three or four different council members have represented the district depending on its alignment. Their most recent councilman, Felipe Fuentes, didn’t serve out his term before stepping down to become a lobbyist. Since he resigned in September, City Council President Herb Wesson has represented the district. 

“Years of various, prior administrations haven’t been doing their jobs,” said Peter Moen, 74, of Tujunga, who attended the forum. “I’m surprised Fuentes never got his tires slashed.”  

The animosity toward City Hall is not new in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Residents have long opposed the California high-speed rail project that would cut through the area. They also fended off the redevelopment of a Kmart into a Home Depot in Sunland.

But the biggest complaints from residents relate to what they perceive as a shortage of city services such as police and firefighters.

 “I’ve been here for 31 years, and your issues are my issues and that’s my big message,” said candidate Dale Gibson, who wore cowboy boots and cowboy hat onstage. Gibson is a horse rancher and stuntman with credits that include “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

“I‘m trying to build a real business here, and I’m watching the community continue to go down the toilet,” said candidate Art Miner, who owns a sports bar.

Two candidates, Karo Torossian of Tujunga and Monica Rodriguez of Mission Hills, lead the pack in campaign contributions and have the most key endorsements. Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed Rodriguez in January. The mayor appointed her to the Board of Public Works in 2013. She resigned last August to run for the district seat.

Torossian also has picked up major endorsements such as Councilman Paul Krekorian, for whom he has worked as a policy advisor since 2009.  

But district residents have long opposed insiders or establishment candidates. A string of campaign upsets include Democrat Raul Bocanegra’s defeat of  Councilman Richard Alarcon in the 2012 39th Assembly District race. Two years later, Patty Lopez, another Democrat, upset Bocanegra.

During the forum, all the candidates were sure to position themselves as fighting City Hall.

“I don’t like Karo and Monica Rodriguez,” Moen said. “Both are representing themselves as non-establishment when they are totally establishment connected. They are smart enough to know they need to hide that aspect of themselves.”

“Everyone wants to vilify me for the support I’ve garnered. I’m trying to highlight my record of accomplishment,” Rodriguez said after the forum as candidates mingled with voters.

Days later at her campaign headquarters, phone banks were empty waiting for volunteers. On the wall, a poster explained how as a public works commissioner, she worked to have the stumps dead palm trees removed.

“I’ve developed a really good reputation of being results oriented and getting the job done,” Rodriguez said. “The most effective ways have always been individuals who know my work.” 

Torossian’s campaign headquarters is a shuttered Denny’s restaurant. The candidate recently sat in a booth and fiddled with an interactive city zoning map on his computer. This is his comfort zone. For seven years, he’s worked on planning issues for Krekorian. 

“My background is having been a neighborhood council member and sitting with city leaders,” Torossian said.  “I understand the concepts and the issues, and people here will have a seat at the table.” 

Another leading candidate is Monica Ratliff, a teacher who was elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District board in 2013. While her opponent raised more than $2.2 million in campaign donations, Ratliff spent $5,000 on refrigerator magnets with her name on them. She is the only elected official in the race.

As the candidates talked with voters outside the church, Ratliff spoke with the woman who sang God Bless America and was concerned about a lack of tourist attractions. 

“No one is talking about this area as a destination. . . like Jackson Hole,”  said Cile Borman, the singer.

Ratliff agreed that farms and bed and breakfasts would make the area more attractive for visitors. 

After the forum, Anderson, the Tujunga resident, smoked a cigarette outside. He liked Ratliff’s record on the school board and said he donated $50 to her campaign.  

“This race has a lot of familiar faces, but there are only three really who have a chance,” he said, citing Ratliff, Torossian and Rodriguez. “Most of the candidates aren’t even raising money. Why are they even running?”

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com 

Twitter: @boreskes

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An earlier version of this article said a runoff would take place if no candidate won a plurality of votes in the March 7 primary. A candidate would avoid a runoff by winning a majority of the votes cast in the primary.
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