Would Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo have won his reelection bid Tuesday if his challenger, bike advocate Joe Bray-Ali, hadn't flamed out in the final weeks of the campaign? No one knows for sure, but the outcome probably wouldn't have changed; it's tough for any challenger to overcome the advantages of incumbency.
Nevertheless, it would be wise for Cedillo and all the city's elected leaders to examine the circumstances that forced an incumbent who should have won in a cakewalk over a political neophyte into a runoff. Because this just doesn't happen to council incumbents backed by the city's political establishment and the special interests that fund them, except in extraordinary cases. The last time it occurred was in 2003, when a popular state Assembly speaker (and future L.A. mayor) named Antonio Villaraigosa took on a not-as-popular councilman named Nick Pacheco and forced him out of office.
Tuesday's runoff wasn't only about the dynamics of one council district. It was a referendum of sorts on the entire city and the way its leaders have been doing business for far too long — namely, by acting as deal-makers on land-use decisions in their districts, negotiating directly with developers who contribute to their reelection campaigns.
This approach is not new to L.A., and the results of this kind of case-by-case "spot zoning" can be seen in every neighborhood in the city. Ultimately it sparked the anti-development backlash that put Measure S, an initiative to temporarily halt major developments and slow future growth, on the March ballot.
Was it a coincidence that Cedillo was forced into a runoff in the same election in which Measure S, the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, was on the ballot? Though it's impossible to know for sure, it's wise for city officials to pay heed. The concerns that animated Measure S supporters — gentrification, displacement, the lack of affordable housing, congested traffic and development transforming existing neighborhoods — are acute in District 1, which is experiencing a bit of a boom at the moment. Highland Park, for example, has become the poster neighborhood for gentrification and the associated concern about longtime residents being priced out by newcomers (who probably had been priced out of their previous neighborhoods). But the same anxiety is felt citywide.
The worries of voters in this race were only exacerbated by what many community members felt was an indifference to their concerns and a lack of response from the councilman's staff. Bray-Ali was smart enough to tap into that frustration and fear, offering a forward-thinking vision of the city's land-use future. He seemed like a credible alternative — at least until revelations about his history of disturbing online commenting came to light, causing many supporters (the Times' editorial board among them) to rescind their endorsements.
So the lesson here is that if this could happen in District 1, it could happen in any Los Angeles council district. And it will if the city's leaders continue to approach development on a case-by-case basis rather than working with their constituents to adopt community plans, then adhering to them. And they may not be so lucky as to face a challenger with troubling personal baggage.
For his part, Cedillo acknowledged after the first round of voting that his office must to do a better job of serving constituents, and he said he has made staff changes in recent months to accomplish that. That's a good start, but it's not enough.
Cedillo also needs to step up and be a leader in trying to solve L.A.'s housing shortage. The city's failure to dramatically increase the supply of affordable housing can't be laid entirely at Cedillo's feet, but as chairman of the council's Housing Committee, he is uniquely positioned to guide policy. Instead of sitting on potential solutions even as frustration with gentrification and displacement grows citywide, as he did with the "value capture" proposal by Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, Cedillo should be leading the charge for a comprehensive affordable housing plan for the city.
Cedillo and his colleagues are right to encourage market-rate developments to ease the housing crisis. But such projects must be just one part of a smart, comprehensive approach to housing that the public can understand and doesn't come at the expense of neighborhoods and residents. If not, there may be a close election in their futures.