Four years ago, Mitch O'Farrell was the political underdog as he ran for Los Angeles City Council, vastly outspent by a competitor with powerful backers such as the mayor, labor unions and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
O'Farrell ultimately triumphed after a bruising campaign laced with accusations of homophobia, threats and voter fraud, winning on his record as a City Council aide.
Now O'Farrell is the one with the edge in campaign cash and the big-name endorsements. And now a new crop of underdogs is coming for him, arguing that O'Farrell has done too little to stop out-of-scale development that degrades neighborhoods and displaces renters in a gentrifying district that stretches from Hollywood to Echo Park.
At a recent debate in Silver Lake, one challenger urged residents to vote for him or several of his rivals — pretty much anyone but O'Farrell. "For those of you who are sick of development that's inappropriate for your community, you have to act up and vote for somebody else," said East Hollywood activist Doug Haines.
The other challengers are tenant activist Sylvie Shain, former neighborhood council President Bill Zide, former Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer Jessica Salans, and David De La Torre, who manages a private stevedoring company. All are vying to represent neighborhoods that have been ground zero for the raging battles over real estate development in Los Angeles.
O'Farrell took office after those plans were initiated, but he has sparred with Haines and other critics over his vision for new development along transit corridors in Hollywood. At the Silver Lake forum, O'Farrell bemoaned the "suburban" planning guidelines that still govern Hollywood, saying "the ground has changed under our feet."
"People have real concerns about growth and development," O'Farrell said in a later interview. "But the backdrop is that we have an unprecedented interest in investing in Los Angeles. … What I always come back to is, what is the balance we have to strike?"
O'Farrell says that since he took office, more than 1,200 units of affordable housing have been approved in his district. He has sought to alter a city law allowing "small lot" projects that include multiple detached homes on a single lot, which have stirred up alarm about out-of-scale development.
And after renters raised concerns about the proposed tear-down of a Hollywood apartment building for a new development on Yucca Avenue, O'Farrell encouraged the developer to ensure spots for those tenants at their current rents, he and the developer said.
"I told the developer, 'I just won't support displacement,'" O'Farrell said.
Backers have applauded O'Farrell for reducing the size of new development in some neighborhoods: In Elysian Valley, he pushed to scale back the height of new buildings allowed next to the Los Angeles River, which is bracing for a development boom. Tracy Stone, an architect who lives in the area, praised the councilman for acting swiftly to prevent the area from being overwhelmed by towering buildings and traffic congestion.
In Echo Park, O'Farrell also worked to reduce the height limits for new buildings along part of Sunset Boulevard.
Critics of O'Farrell "want him to come out and say there can't be any development," said Holly Hampton, vice president of the board of the Echo Park Historical Society. "We have to have development. It just has to be appropriately planned."
His challengers counter that O'Farrell has done too little to prevent the elimination of existing housing and help residents hurt by new development. Shain, for example, opposed plans to turn an empty Hollywood apartment building into a hotel, arguing that it would set a damaging precedent that would allow more housing to be converted.
She and other tenant activists were unimpressed when an O'Farrell aide said the councilman did not back the hotel plans but saw no legal basis to stop them. O'Farrell later added that the building had long been vacant and slated for redevelopment.
Shain, who is now suing the city over the decision, pointed out that a hotel conversion in another part of Hollywood was scuttled when the lawmaker who represented that area, Councilman David Ryu, sharply opposed it.
O'Farrell "just didn't care," Shain said. "He didn't use the levers that he holds, in his position, to do anything."
Silver Lake residents were also unsuccessful in pushing O'Farrell to oppose a new development that tore down existing homes facing Coronado Street.
At a City Hall hearing on the Coronado Street project, an O'Farrell aide said they were working to alter the city law that allows such small-lot developments, but city lawyers had advised them that the planned project was in line with the existing rules. The O'Farrell aide told the committee to reject the appeal filed by neighbor Anne Hars.
O'Farrell has since backed a proposal to adjust the small-lot rules to make such developments more compatible with neighborhoods and to encourage builders to preserve bungalow courts rather than tearing them down.
In January, he pushed to designate an Echo Park Avenue bungalow court that is threatened by such a development as a historic monument, a step that would give it added protection from demolition. O'Farrell said the Coronado Street site was not eligible for the same kind of protection.
The city has lost lawsuits in the past, and "we have to be very, very careful about that," O'Farrell said.
Hars, who is supporting Shain, questioned why O'Farrell hadn't sided with them earlier if he had concerns about the small-lot rules. "People were made homeless because of this law," the Silver Lake resident said. "Then, in election season, he's making a stand on it?"
Zide argued that the changes to the small-lot rules were useless because they were impossible to enforce, calling them "too little too late." The former Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council president worked to help elect O'Farrell four years ago, but said he gradually became disillusioned with the councilman, beginning with his support for the controversial Millennium Hollywood skyscraper project.
De La Torre, who also volunteered to support O'Farrell when he first ran for office, has also turned against the councilman. He and other challengers have accused O'Farrell of being detached from the people he represents. Salans said that "the biggest thing we have gotten feedback on is that he can't be reached."
O'Farrell has maintained that he is accessible, telling the Silver Lake crowd that his staff had never turned down requests for his weekly office hours.
So far, O'Farrell has raised far more campaign money than any of his rivals — more than $400,000 — and independent committees formed to support his candidacy have drummed up tens of thousands of dollars more.
Among his challengers, Shain has led in fundraising with more than $28,000, including a $5,000 loan to herself, followed by Salans, who has raised nearly $14,000. Haines has yet to report any money raised by his campaign, but an independent committee has generated more than $20,000 to support him.