Voters across Los Angeles are poised to engineer the biggest shake-up on the City Council in a dozen years, sending seven newcomers into office in a series of contests that will unfold from March through July.
Although the mayoral campaign has grabbed most of the attention this election year, with millions raised by the five leading candidates, the stakes are just as high for the city’s powerful 15-member legislative body.
Term limits and other factors -- illness and the election of a sitting councilman to higher office -- have created the largest number of incumbent-free council races in more than a decade. Six current council members depart June 30 and a seventh -- Tony Cardenas -- already has moved to Congress.
The new crop of lawmakers, each earning nearly $179,000 a year and representing a quarter of a million residents, will confront complex, overarching problems such as the city’s financial crisis and the need to create more jobs. But they also will have to deal with narrower issues, including how big a police force the city can afford and how to improve lagging paramedic response times -- not to mention angry calls about potholes, trash pickup, graffiti, illegal dumping, crossing guards, development projects and traffic congestion.
“You’re talking about the most powerful City Council in the United States,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “You could argue in some ways that individual council members are more important than state legislators. They have a great deal of power over the nature of the neighborhood you live in and the services it receives.”
With so many seats up for grabs, both employee unions and business groups are preparing to flood the races with money.
LA Jobs PAC, the political action committee for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, has thrown its weight behind five candidates in districts stretching from Lincoln Heights west to Pacific Palisades. The group will spend at least $650,000 -- several times any previous effort -- in this year’s campaign cycle, much of it on council races, said Ruben Gonzalez, who handles policy for the chamber.
The outcome is critical, Gonzalez said, because the seven winners could easily remain in office until 2025, due to the power of incumbency and a city law allowing three four-year terms.
“They are going to shape how we deal with the structural deficit, how we deal with pension reform, how we protect the city,” he said.
Labor leaders have plans of their own. Working Californians, a political action committee tied to the union that represents Department of Water and Power employees, has announced plans for an independent spending campaign on behalf of four council candidates. Last year, the DWP union spent $527,000 in just one race, the election to replace Councilwoman Janice Hahn. More than a third went to the man who ultimately won, Joe Buscaino, records show.
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, looking to extend its City Hall influence, is backing seven candidates.
One goal for the county labor group is to secure an ordinance requiring large hotels across Los Angeles to pay a “living wage.” It also wants city leaders to spend more on renewable energy -- wind, solar and geothermal power -- and impose new regulations on commercial trash companies, from the types of trucks they use to how much their employees earn.
The federation is looking to bring four more state lawmakers to the council, for a total of seven representatives who previously served in Sacramento -- more than at any time in city history.
“Los Angeles needs a council that will have the courage to move forward with initiatives that benefit workers,” said Maria Elena Durazo, the federation’s top official, in a statement.
Three council contests are especially competitive. In the 9th District, covering part of South Los Angeles, seven people are vying to replace Councilwoman Jan Perry, including two state lawmakers, an LAPD deputy chief and two former council aides.
In the 13th District, which stretches from Echo Park to Hollywood, 12 candidates are vying to replace Councilman Eric Garcetti, who, like Perry, is running for mayor.
That race has at least five strong contenders, said Steve Afriat, a longtime lobbyist and City Hall observer. Any two of them -- John Choi, a former member of the Board of Public Works; Alex De Ocampo, who works for the Saban Family Foundation; assistant fire Chief Emile Mack; longtime Garcetti aide Mitch O’Farrell; and former Deputy Mayor Matt Szabo -- could get into a runoff with as few as 6,000 votes, Afriat said.
Szabo is hoping to break out of the pack by calling for DWP employees to pay more for their retirement benefits. That could put him at odds with Choi, who is backed by the labor-affiliated Working Californians.
Choi said he was not yet prepared to back such a change but would keep it as one possible option.
O’Farrell is pushing for a reduction in City Council salaries and the elimination of the five-member Board of Public Works, whose members are picked by the mayor and earn as much as $130,000 annually.
Another competitive race is the three-way contest to replace Councilman Ed Reyes involving Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles); Reyes’ chief of staff, Jose Gardea; and businessman Jesse Rosas.
Gardea, who has been with Reyes for more than a decade, has raised the most money.
But Cedillo has the backing of the LA Jobs PAC, Working Californians and the county labor federation, which represents more than 600,000 union workers.
The federation has already spent nearly $20,000 on behalf of Cedillo. Other state legislators backed by the labor organization in City Council contests are Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Los Angeles); Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar); and state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles).
Former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represented part of the Westside, warned that the influx of politicians from Sacramento could leave the council with new members who know how to pass laws but have little experience in making things work.
“The city has to be governed, it has to be run,” said Galanter, who served from 1987 to 2003. Asked how the city is running now, she said: “Not so well.”
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The Los Angeles City Council is poised to experience its largest turnover in a dozen years, with voters selecting seven new council members over the next six months.
INCOMING COUNCIL MEMBERS
Wendy Greuel *
*Won a special election
DEPARTING COUNCIL MEMBERS
Tony Cardenas **
**Will be replaced in a May 21 special election (runoff election would be held July 23)
Source: Times reporting