Big money pumped into a small council district

The 1st District City Council race has garnered more than four times the money of previous races there, buoyed by the deep pockets and independent spending of labor and business leaders.

In the runoff to replace council member Ed Reyes in the district near downtown Los Angeles, a combined $1.97 million has been raised on behalf of former Sacramento lawmaker Gil Cedillo and Reyes’ chief of staff, Jose Gardea, according to campaign finance reports.

The election almost ended in the primary: Cedillo received 49.32%, less than 1% shy of winning outright. Both candidates have said they hope to bring jobs and development to the 1st District, which cuts a diagonal swath from Pico-Union to Highland Park. It’s the third-smallest council district by area and one of the poorest. Half the voting population is Latino.

Gardea, 44, says he knows the district from growing up there and during his years working for Reyes, knocking on doors and organizing in neighborhoods such as Angelino Heights and MacArthur Park. Cedillo says his time in Sacramento and his connections with state lawmakers will help him make changes faster for business owners and community members.

The most contentious issues in the race are linked to hotly contested development in areas near downtown. Gardea typically opposes such proposals, saying redevelopment does not include enough affordable housing and would be bad for surrounding neighborhoods. Cedillo has said he would work with community members and civic leaders to find compromises.


The rallying point for Echo Park residents has been a proposed project at the Barlow Respiratory Hospital. Facing expensive upgrades to meet earthquake building codes, the 110-year-old hospital plans to rezone its leafy knoll of Elysian Park for high-density development, sell most of the land, then build a new hospital with the profits.

Gardea is against any development. Cedillo has said he opposes the current plan, which could create more than 800 units in an area the size of Echo Park Lake. But the county labor federation, which has heavily underwritten Cedillo’s campaign, has publicly endorsed the project, saying it will create a needed economic boost to the community.

In Chinatown, at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues, Walmart has begun remodeling an empty storefront for a neighborhood grocery store that would be about one-fifth the size of a typical Walmart. Opponents say that the project would hurt local workers and that the higher volume of traffic would endanger neighborhood children.

Gardea opposes the Walmart. Cedillo has not taken a public stance, saying instead that a Ralphs -- which he says is friendlier to labor -- would have been a better fit.

Between July and December 2012, Walmart donated $21,000 to the political action committee that has financed a large portion of Cedillo’s campaign. The LA Jobs PAC has spent $147,829 to help Cedillo -- $87,000 to promote Cedillo and $60,829 to attack Gardea, including with mailers and yard signs.

Gardea and his supporters have repeatedly lashed out at Cedillo for being too wedded to special interests, including labor. A political group, Coalition for Jose Gardea for City Council 2013, has sent out a glossy advertisement featuring a portly man clenching a cigar. “Politico! (El Gato Gordo),” the captions read. “Gil Cedillo Became a Political Fat Cat.”

Groups sponsored by the Department of Water and Power union, the County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce have spent nearly $650,000 on mailers, telemarketing calls and billboards to support Cedillo, who for 15 years was a state legislator. The same groups spent $61,000 more on an anti-Gardea campaign.

A spokeswoman for the Cedillo campaign said campaign finance law prevents Cedillo from communicating with or controlling independent groups.

Digital billboards, an issue heating up across the city, have drawn attention because of campaign contributions. CBS Outdoor, which is seeking financial damages from the city of Los Angeles over the loss of its electronic signs, has spent $13,200 on signs for Cedillo.

Gardea has said he doesn’t “see any scenario” that would make digital billboards a good fit in the 1st District. Cedillo’s campaign would not say whether he would allow them, but rather would review them on a case-by-case basis.

Cedillo has criticized Gardea for being the insider candidate, not doing enough while working for Reyes to reduce crime and improve education and the economy in a district heavily affected by the recession. The district has the third-lowest average wage in the city, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Gardea has been endorsed by mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, multiple neighborhood councils and the local union for food and commercial workers.

The district’s development slowed when the Community Redevelopment Agency dissolved in 2011, Gardea has said. That threw into limbo proposals for affordable housing and business development in Westlake, Pico-Union and Chinatown.


Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.