Unions, business groups unleash a deluge of outside spending in L.A. council races
Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our City Hall newsletter. It’s David Zahniser, catching you up on the events of the past week, with an assist from my colleague Dakota Smith.
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Six months ago, Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman voted against a lucrative package of pay increases for police officers, arguing the deal was financially irresponsible and would take money away from other city services.
Now, as a candidate in the March 5 election, Raman is facing a steady stream of attack ads, many of them focusing on homelessness and public safety. Some of those have come from a committee sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that negotiated the four-year package of raises with Mayor Karen Bass.
Asked whether she is being punished for her vote against the LAPD raises, she responded: “It certainly seems like it.”
With the election less than a month away, L.A.’s council contests are awash in “independent expenditures” — unlimited spending, frequently by unions, businesses and advocacy groups seeking to shape decision-making at City Hall.
Although donors are barred under city law from giving more than $900 to the campaign of each council candidate, independent expenditure committees can raise and spend as much as they want to promote their favored candidates — as long as they do not coordinate their activities with those same candidates.
In South Los Angeles, groups representing carpenters, firefighters and workers at the Department of Water and Power have spent at least $229,000 on independent expenditures supporting Councilmember Heather Hutt, who is seeking her first four-year term.
On the Eastside, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and the Western States Regional Council of Carpenters have spent a combined $331,000 on mailers, phone calls and other independent expenditures promoting Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who is looking to unseat Councilmember Kevin de León.
In the northwest San Fernando Valley, big-money donors have spent at least $714,000 on independent expenditures — or I.E.s — supporting the reelection bid of Councilmember John Lee. Much of that spending is being carried out by unions representing firefighters and DWP workers, both of whom depend on the council for approval of their salary agreements, and from a committee with major funding from the LAPD union and a political action committee sponsored by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
By midday Friday, no contest had seen as much I.E. spending as Raman’s Hollywood Hills district, where labor, business and nonprofit groups had spent at least $789,000 — much of it aimed at electing Deputy City Atty. Ethan Weaver, one of Raman’s opponents.
United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112 had spent the most, putting more than $300,000 into materials promoting Weaver, according to Ethics Commission postings.
Freddy Escobar, the union’s president, said his group backed Weaver out of frustration with the city’s lack of progress on homelessness, as well as Raman’s opposition to the creation of no-encampment zones around schools and daycare centers.
“The members I represent spend more time with the homeless than anybody else in the city. We continue to see the failures, period, every single day,” he said. “They’re spending over $1.3 billion on this problem, and for us, it’s only getting worse.”
Raman, for her part, has been campaigning on her success in moving homeless residents out of encampments in Sherman Oaks, Studio City and other parts of the district. Asked about the spending by the firefighter union, she touted her work in keeping encampments from taking hold in locations with a high potential for fires.
“I’ve partnered with the Fire Department to raise these issues to the mayor’s office, so that our district would be given the resources needed for these very, very high-fire risk zones,” she said.
Still, firefighters are just one source of the big spending.
Thrive L.A., an advocacy group backed in part by business leaders, has spent at least $211,000 on materials promoting Weaver and opposing Raman. Yet another I.E. committee — this one sponsored by the police union — has put at least $100,000 into promotional materials portraying Raman as weak on public safety.
The Police Protective League’s anti-Raman committee recently collected $400,000 from Douglas Emmett Properties, a company seeking to evict hundreds of tenants from an apartment building on the Westside.
Raman, in an interview, said she believes that company is targeting her because of her success in securing new protections for L.A. renters. She also took aim at the police union’s spending in local elections, calling it “an important source” of the group’s political power at City Hall.
“The kind of money that’s being spent against me right now can really shape a local election. That’s a lot of power,” she said. “And I think that that does become part of the calculus when you’re making decisions in the building.”
Raman said the union’s political spending helps explain why elected officials at City Hall have been giving such significant pay increases to LAPD officers over the years, including those contained in the most recent contract — now a major source of the city’s budget crisis. She also described the union spending as a reason for the city’s “narrow conversation” about strategies for addressing public safety.
In recent weeks, attack ads from the Los Angeles Police Protective League have focused on Raman’s vote against an ordinance barring encampments from going up next to schools. Raman, on the campaign trail, has defended that position, calling the law ineffective and saying it simply moves homeless people down the street.
Raman said the attack ads targeting her don’t acknowledge the reductions in crime and homelessness that have taken place in her district since she took office in 2020.
“It does seem like the attacks are not coming from a place of honest concern around public safety outcomes around the city,” the Silver Lake resident said.
Douglas Emmett, through a spokesperson, declined to explain the reasons for its donations in Raman’s district, saying instead that its advocacy work is about “creating value” for its stockholders and other stakeholders. Craig Lally, president of the Police Protective League, was more expansive, saying his union got involved in the race out of concern over Raman’s policy positions.
Lally, in an email, said Raman’s views on encampments near schools are “out of touch” with voters. He also criticized Raman for opposing the LAPD salary agreement, saying it is needed to help with recruitment and retention.
The LAPD, which has shrunk by more than 1,000 officers, is still in danger of losing hundreds more, Lally said.
“Nithya is staying true to her values and we are going to be true to ours,” he said in an email. “And that’s why we support Mayor Bass’s efforts to recruit and retain officers to grow our ranks. Unfortunately Nithya does not support the mayor’s efforts.”
Raman, at a recent candidate forum, said hiring numbers at the LAPD — staffing has fallen below 9,000 officers — show that the raises aren’t doing what they were supposed to. Weaver, on the other hand, said he supports both the police raises and the law prohibiting encampments from taking hold within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers.
Weaver, who lives in Los Feliz, said he is proud of the support he has received from public safety unions. He also defended his support from different parts of the real estate industry — both construction trade unions and real estate developers.
“I’m very proud that people across the spectrum involved in building the housing that we need see me as necessary in helping to address the crisis,” he said.
Raman has her own I.E. support coming from Unite Here Local 11, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, which has spent more than $100,000 on efforts to get her reelected. Unite Here has campaign workers talking to voters on her behalf and promotional materials that tout her support for Measure HLA, which would require the installation of bicycle and bus lanes on certain corridors, according to ethics filings.
Unite Here, which put nearly $700,000 into the election of Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez in 2022, has been a major player in shaping new development rules for Hollywood in downtown L.A. The group also secured approval of regulations to force new hotel projects to go through a more extensive approval process.
The one candidate in the race who is not benefiting from I.E. spending is Levon “Lev” Baronian, a software engineer who lives in Sherman Oaks. Appearing last month in Griffith Park, he took aim at the spending that is going on for both of his opponents.
“They’re both supported by special interests,” he said. “They just happen to be opposing special interests.”
State of play
— STORMY WEATHER: Mayor Karen Bass focused much of this week on the winter storm that just wouldn’t leave, updating Angelenos on hundreds of mudslides, her emergency declaration and ongoing cleanup efforts. For those sick of all that wet weather, hang on: more rain is being forecast in about a week.
— ALLIANCE ATTACK: A group that sued L.A. over its response to homelessness is urging a federal judge to issue $6.4 million in financial penalties against the city, saying elected officials have dragged their feet on compliance with the terms of a settlement reached two years ago. The filing, submitted by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, comes amid new concerns about Bass’ Inside Safe program, which has been moving homeless people into hotels and motels. Some on the council have grown worried that those hotel and motel rooms will not count toward the number of beds required by the alliance settlement.
— CHOOSING CHOI: The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners selected Asst. Chief Dominic Choi to serve as interim police chief for the next six months. Choi will fill in while the commission, which is made up of mayoral appointees, searches for a permanent replacement for departing Police Chief Michel Moore.
— VENDING VICTORY: The City Council voted to lift its ban on sidewalk vending outside some of the city’s most heavily trafficked sites — the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium, Universal Studios and several other locations.
— COUNTING BLESSINGS: Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) said this week that her DUI arrest was a “blessing in disguise,” one that ultimately made her life better. Carrillo is one of the seven candidates seeking to unseat Councilmember Kevin de León in his Eastside district.
— PRICEY PAYOUTS: L.A. County’s legal costs grew to nearly $1 billion last year, with roughly one-fourth going toward the payment of settlements and judgments, The Times reported. A major portion of those payouts stemmed from lawsuits targeting the Sheriff’s Department, including one focused on inmate strip searches in the women’s jail.
— CARUSO’S COMPLAINT: Real estate developer Rick Caruso, who lost to Bass in the 2022 mayoral election, weighed in on the neverending saga over the downtown L.A. graffiti towers, arguing that the images painted on the empty Oceanwide Plaza buildings are vandalism — and “a crime plain and simple.” The City Council on Friday ordered the property owner to clean up the site. In other Caruso-related news, the businessman is co-hosting a campaign fundraiser for Weaver, the prosecutor running to unseat Raman, on Thursday.
— TAKEOVERS TARGETED: The council launched a pilot program aimed at reducing the number of street takeovers at 20 intersections, including 4th Street at Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. and Glenoaks Boulevard at Polk Street in Sylmar. The program will result in the installation of raised, hardened center lines to deter motorists from doing “doughnuts” and other stunts.
— FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS? Locked gates along Pico Boulevard have become an issue in the race for the 10th Council District. Attorney Grace Yoo and former city commissioner Aura Vasquez want to open the gates to pedestrians, a move opposed by many in the Country Club Park neighborhood.
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- Where is Inside Safe? The mayor’s program to combat homelessness did not launch any new operations this week. Instead, outreach workers scrambled to get homeless people into wet-weather shelters and other facilities during the recent storms.
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