Two years ago, in a tough race for the Los Angeles City Council, health clinic executive David Ryu made a promise that helped propel him to victory: He swore off campaign contributions from real estate developers.
That promise, Ryu said, was meant to reassure voters that community needs, not political donations, would guide his decisions on new building projects.
Now, with concerns over development and campaign cash taking center stage in the March 7 election, an array of candidates are embracing the same strategy as they look to topple incumbents, some of whom have a steep financial advantage.
Public affairs consultant Mitchell Schwartz, waging a long-shot bid to unseat Mayor Eric Garcetti, said he won't take campaign funds from real estate developers. Council candidates in races from Echo Park to Westchester have made similar promises, singling out that money as a symbol of City Hall corruption.
Schwartz contends that developers who face community opposition get their projects approved by making hefty campaign contributions. Since making his pledge, the Windsor Square resident says he has returned $2,200 in developer donations.
Forgoing that money "removes any question about whether I'll be beholden to the people who give me donations," he said.
Some of the candidates running against Councilmen Mike Bonin, Mitch O'Farrell and Paul Koretz have made developer donation pledges of their own. In response, the mayor and those incumbents have insisted that political contributions have nothing to do with their votes.
"I make my decisions based not on any donations I ever receive, but on the strength of people's proposals," Garcetti said last week. "I've had people who have donated to me whose proposals I've rejected, and vice versa."
Some of the campaigns have dismissed the pledges as a gimmick. Political consultant Parke Skelton, who is running the Koretz campaign in a Westside-to-Encino district, recently called the idea of declining all developer money "ridiculous."
"There are zillions of different kinds of developers. People who build affordable housing and are good developers," Skelton said. "Everyone knows the city needs a certain amount of development in order to exist."
Nevertheless, Koretz was among a handful of council members who recently proposed banning donations from developers currently or recently seeking city approvals. That proposal was an acknowledgement that many Angelenos think campaign money drives such decisions at City Hall, even as elected officials insist it doesn't.
Accusations that City Hall has a "pay to play" system for approving development are being made by backers of Measure S, a bitterly contested proposal also on the March ballot that would restrict some large-scale real estate projects.
Two candidates said their pledges were also spurred, in part, by The Times' investigation into Sea Breeze, a 352-unit apartment project approved by Garcetti and the City Council in 2015. The Times found that donors with ties to the Sea Breeze developer gave more than $600,000 to L.A.-area politicians while his project was being considered.
For the challengers, swearing off developer donations is a way of turning the advantages held by incumbents against them. Most of the candidates who have promised not to accept developer donations have raised only a small fraction of the money that the incumbents have garnered. Schwartz, for example, has taken in roughly one-eighth of the amount collected by Garcetti, reports show.
Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, called the challengers' strategy "good politics."
"Developer money is largely going to the incumbent," he said. "What have they got to lose?"
Campaign donations were also a major issue when Garcetti ran for mayor four years ago. But that year, in the wake of a major budget crisis, the debate revolved around contributions by city employee unions, some of which had fought efforts to reduce pension benefits and cut the size of the city workforce.
During that campaign, Garcetti attacked his opponent, then-City Controller Wendy Greuel, for her support from the Department of Water and Power's largest employee union, which poured money into a campaign committee set up to support her candidacy.
This time around, with new multi-story building projects being proposed in Hollywood, Koreatown and the Westside, many candidates are turning their focus to developers.
In an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district, at least two candidates trying to unseat City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, Sylvie Shain and Jessica Salans, have pledged not to accept developer donations. Shain, a tenant activist, said the pledge will "restore confidence."
Attorney Jesse Creed, who is battling Koretz, said developer donations are "corrupting to the process." Mark Ryavec, a Venice slow-growth advocate who is running against Bonin to represent coastal neighborhoods, said the zoning process is "driven by campaign cash."
"The public is rightfully disgusted," Ryavec said. Both Creed and Ryavec have promised not to take donations from developers with projects pending at City Hall.
Such allegations infuriate some housing activists who say the city needs much more development to drive down rents. The demonization of developers is a disturbing trend that stunts growth, said Mark Vallianatos, spokesman for the advocacy group Abundant Housing L.A.
"The idea that this business is especially evil turns people against the very important economic activity that we need much more of," said Vallianatos, who is also an opponent of Measure S.
Vallianatos and his allies say much more scrutiny should be placed on the political clout of homeowner groups, which prevent large projects from getting approved and dissuade city leaders from changing zoning laws so that denser developments can be built.
O'Farrell said he sees nothing intrinsically wrong in accepting donations from real estate developers, since the practice is allowed under city laws.
"My choice is to follow the Ethics Commission guidelines, and then make [development] decisions based on the criteria," he said. "Is there community support? Is there a planning department recommendation? Is there a planning commission recommendation? How do local residents feel about a particular project? That's always my criteria."
Bonin said he too makes his development decisions on the merits. "I have accepted money and then voted against people's projects continually," he said. "I have a long history of that."
As for any candidate telling him he should give up developer money, Bonin said: "See you on the ballot."
Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.