Candidates for a slew of races in Los Angeles County made their last-ditch appeals to voters Monday, even as local elections officials warned that the lack of prominent ballot measures and the threat of rain could lower voter turnout today.
"My suspicion is, we're going to be lucky to get 15%" of voters to the polls, said J. Michael Carey, city clerk in Los Angeles, where voters will cast ballots in seven City Council districts and four Los Angeles Unified school board districts.
In the 2001 spring elections, which included a mayoral contest, about 34% of Los Angeles voters turned out. Last fall, 50% of the state's voters cast ballots in the gubernatorial race.
Former Los Angeles police chief and council candidate Bernard C. Parks charged Monday that turnout could be further depressed because the city has eliminated polling places, including 10 precincts in his South Los Angeles district.
Under state law, local election officials can turn a precinct of 250 or fewer registered voters into a vote-by-mail precinct, in which voters must mail in their ballots or drop them off at a polling place. More than 160 of the city's 2,094 precincts function as vote-by-mail precincts.
Carey said that all voters in those precincts received absentee ballots and letters on Feb. 3 explaining the process.
Today's election features races in more than 60 cities in Los Angeles County, campaigns that have been dominated by local concerns about crime, development, education and municipal services.
Many of the races have been hard-fought, sparking sizable expenditures by the candidates and groups with an interest in the election. In the Los Angeles municipal elections, candidates in the seven council district races have spent more than $4.1 million so far -- a figure that will rise substantially when several of the campaigns go to a May 20 runoff, as expected.
City officials said money from interest groups is playing a larger role in the local elections than ever before. This year, spending by outside groups makes up 18% of total campaign expenditures -- up from 2% two years ago.
Groups like organized labor and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians have poured $775,000 in independent expenditures into the election, flooding voters with campaign literature.
Most of that money, about $500,000, has been spent in the fiercely competitive 14th District race among Councilman Nick Pacheco, former mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and Olympic boxer Paul Gonzales. That spending surpassed the total amount of independent expenditures made in all the 2001 City Council races combined.
The increase in outside spending is pushing candidates to put in more time fund-raising in order to defend themselves against charges made by independent expenditures, said Lee Ann Pelham, executive director of the city Ethics Commission.
When voters approved local campaign finance regulations in 1990, they "thought the system was going to keep campaign spending in check," Pelham said. The surge in expenditures by groups with an interest in the election is "throwing the system out of balance," she added.
Aside from the 14th District, two other competitive city races have drawn large independent expenditures. The 12th District in the northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley has attracted six candidates hoping to replace Councilman Hal Bernson: former Assemblywoman Paula Boland, businessman Norman Huberman, school board member Julie Korenstein, businessman Walter Prince, council staffer Greig Smith and affordable housing builder Robert Vinson.
In the mid-city 10th District, attorney John Caldwell, former state legislative deputy Martin Ludlow, minister Madison Shockley, civil rights attorney Leo Terrell, council aide Deron Williams and former Assemblyman Rod Wright are fighting to succeed outgoing Councilman Nate Holden.
The scenario is starkly different in the Valley's 2nd District, where Councilwoman Wendy Greuel is running unopposed. In the 4th District, Councilman Tom LaBonge is being challenged by film producer Derek Milosavljevic. In the newly created 6th District, currently represented by outgoing Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, former Assemblyman Tony Cardenas is running against businessman Jose Roy Garcia.
Parks is the heavyweight candidate in the 8th District, vacant since Mark Ridley-Thomas was elected to the state Assembly. The other candidates for that seat are public relations specialist Robert Cole, community financing executive Forescee Hogan-Rowles, economic development consultant Sherri Franklin and associate publisher Kevin Melton.
Meanwhile, hefty financial backing from the Coalition for Kids -- a political action committee co-chaired by former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad -- and the United Teachers-Los Angeles once again dominated this year's Los Angeles Unified school board campaigns.
As of Feb. 28, the two organizations had contributed a total of $2.8 million to the four board races, more than two-thirds of the $3.5 million raised for all 10 candidates, according to city records.
The most costly race is in the San Fernando Valley, where incumbent Caprice Young has raised about $930,000 trying to fend off former teacher Jon Lauritzen in District 3. Young's major donation -- about $780,000 -- came from the Coalition for Kids. Lauritzen's campaign has been almost single-handedly fueled by the United Teachers-Los Angeles' $841,000 contribution.
The teachers union also supported incumbent David Tokofsky, who received $41,000 from the union in his bid to keep his Eastside District 5 seat. Tokofsky's main opponent is Nellie Rios-Parra, a Lennox School District teacher and administrator who received $120,000 from the coalition. Other challengers for the seat include Jose Sigala, an aide to Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), and Maria Lou Calanche, a doctoral student and teacher at East Los Angeles College.
District 1, which is centered in South Los Angeles and the Mid-Wilshire area, is being hotly pursued by retired principal Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who has benefited from $509,000 in donations from the teachers union. Defending the seat is incumbent Genethia Hudley-Hayes, whose $283,000 in contributions was led by a $100,000 donation from the coalition.
In the Harbor and South Bay area of District 7, incumbent Mike Lansing's $131,000 worth of donations included $62,000 from the coalition. Long-shot challenger Gilbert Carrillo did not receive the teachers union endorsement, and has funded most of his own $5,000 campaign.