Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo has every advantage in his reelection campaign — incumbency and an enormous fundraising advantage over his rivals.
He’s got broad support from labor, business and Democratic leaders, plus a lengthy record representing the community where he was born.
Yet Cedillo is not coasting to a second council term. Local concerns about Eastside gentrification and nationwide voter sentiment that has soured on incumbents and the establishment are among the factors that might work against him.
“Just because he’s an incumbent doesn’t mean he’s going to cruise to reelection. He’s got to up his work ethic. He’s got to work harder,” said Gloria Romero, a former state legislator who lived in Cedillo’s district for three decades before moving to the Westside a year ago.
Unseating a City Council incumbent is a tall order. The last time it happened was in 2003, and it took a prominent former Assembly speaker — Antonio Villaraigosa — to do it.
But one of Cedillo’s challengers, bike activist Joe Bray-Ali, says he has received enough attention and dollars that he might be able to force the councilman into a runoff when Angelenos head to the polls on March 7.
Bray-Ali contends that Cedillo has lost touch with Council District 1 after serving 14 years in the state Legislature before being elected to the council in 2013.
“Hats off to him for his long and storied career, but dude, you’ve got to want this job. And it’s clear he doesn’t,” Bray-Ali said during a recent interview at an event protesting evictions in Lincoln Heights.
Cedillo, 62, declined to discuss the race with the Los Angeles Times. However, during a raucous candidate forum recently in Glassell Park that attracted more than 500 people, he repeatedly said his rivals had no experience governing, although they may make eloquent speeches.
“I have a record, and you can look at it, and you can evaluate it. I know what it takes to get things done,” Cedillo said. “It’s easy to say things, particularly if you don’t have any record, you don’t have any accountability.”
Cedillo, a former assemblyman and state senator, never mentioned Bray-Ali by name, but it was clear he was referring to him.
Also competing in the race are businessman Jesse Rosas and community organizer Giovany Hernandez. Neither has the campaign infrastructure or the donations to pose a real threat to Cedillo.
Bray-Ali faces an uphill battle, although he has raised more than $50,000 and qualified for roughly the same amount in public matching funds.
The son of a Democratic political operative, Bray-Ali worked as a field deputy for a member of the Legislature after he graduated from college. He became heavily involved in city politics when he led a multiyear fight for bike lanes on Figueroa Street.
Cedillo, who voiced support for the lanes at first, later became instrumental in killing the proposal. He dismissed cyclists as a small segment of the population and said the bikeways might slow emergency response times.
Cedillo’s supporters argue that Bray-Ali’s run is retribution for that move. But the 37-year-old Lincoln Heights resident, who recently closed his bike shop, says he has expanded his focus to other issues affecting the district, especially the gentrification that is driving out immigrant families.
Bray-Ali said his decade of advocating for bicyclists showed him the tangled bureaucracy that city residents face and what he perceives as Cedillo’s lack of concern for their issues.
“A lot of it is he’s used to Sacramento. He’s not used to the rough-and-tumble and day-to-day hustle of a city council district,” Bray-Ali said. “That plays perfectly into my hands as a challenger.”
Cedillo’s supporters agree the incumbent is not the biggest glad-hander on the City Council. They argue, however, that this reputation overshadows the work he does for constituents behind closed doors.
While acknowledging that Cedillo could have been more visible in his district, Jen Rivera, Cedillo’s former deputy chief of staff, described him as “the only adult in the room” whose strengths are policy making and legislation. “No one gives him credit for that,” she said.
Rivera, who has worked at City Hall for a decade, pointed to the council’s response to homelessness as an example.
“The fact there is no criminalization for folks sleeping on the streets is Gil Cedillo. There were a lot of late-night conversations that were not public. He did not publicize them. Should he? Yes,” Rivera said. “That’s not his style. He is old school. He wants to just do the work.”
Cedillo, a liberal who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, is best known for his work on behalf of immigrants who are in the country illegally. In the Legislature, he championed efforts to grant drivers’ licenses to such immigrants and provide college financial aid for young people who were brought into the country illegally.
Now, as President Trump cracks down on immigration, Cedillo, whose district is three-quarters Latino, is touting his efforts on behalf of immigrants who do not have documents.
“Trump is hoping you forget to vote,” states one mailer that Cedillo sent in English and Spanish to constituents earlier this month.
Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., said Cedillo could benefit in the election from his focus on immigration. He noted the controversies surrounding Trump’s travel ban involving seven majority-Muslim nations and his call to build an enormous wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cedillo’s “political career has been built all around immigrant rights, starting with drivers licenses and helping” students without documents, Regalado said. “He can run on his record, and I think he would be a fool not to.”
Cedillo also faces concerns over gentrification in his district, which includes Chinatown, Lincoln Heights and Pico-Union. Buyers are snapping up properties and evicting renters.
Real estate interests, including developers who are building market-rate housing and decreasing affordability in the district, have been a significant source of the $356,000 that Cedillo has raised for his campaign.
The incumbent says that while he has welcomed development because of the city’s housing crunch, he also has fought for tenants’ rights and affordable housing. In a letter to The Times, he said that since 2013, the city has completed 809 affordable housing units and an additional 485 are under construction.
During candidate forums, however, a vocal contingent has been skeptical when Cedillo defended his record. A senior citizen facing eviction turned her back to him as he spoke at a gathering in Lincoln Park.
A video of Cedillo answering a phone call on the stage in the middle of the Glassell Park forum has been circulated by his critics as evidence that he is out of touch. Some in that audience booed and cursed him. Nevertheless, the councilman was defiant.
“You can heckle me. You can vote for someone else. You can do all of those things, but I’m going to tell you this,” he responded. “On March 8, I’m still going to be your council member, and I’m going to work for you and support you.”
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