Breaking up the status quo at L.A. City Hall? Both of these candidates argue they’ll do it
John Lee has the kind of City Hall resume that has long been a winner in this northwestern stretch of the San Fernando Valley: He was the top aide to the last councilman. Just like that councilman. And the councilman before him.
But as Lee runs for a spot on the Los Angeles City Council, his rival, Loraine Lundquist, argues that voters are ready to break with that City Hall dynasty.
Lundquist, an astrophysicist and college educator, has campaigned as an antidote to the “status quo.” The choice, she argued at one forum, is “the difference between what we’ve had for so long — and someone who will bring change.”
Yet as Lee tries to win over voters in neighborhoods such as Chatsworth, Northridge and Porter Ranch, he insists that he -- not Lundquist -- is the one who will shake things up at City Hall.
“Right now you have 14 City Council members saying the same things, supporting the same programs,” Lee said at a recent forum in Granada Hills. “We need a different voice to speak up.”
Attacking City Hall is a popular tactic in this Valley district, even for someone who spent years at City Hall. It is a suburban stretch of Los Angeles that can feel both geographically and philosophically remote from downtown.
It is also an area in political flux: It has been the only district represented by Republicans on a council dominated by Democrats. Yet in recent decades, Democrats have come to significantly outnumber Republicans there among registered voters, and the number of nonpartisan voters has surged dramatically.
The result is that although both candidates are betting that voters are fed up with City Hall, they are doing so in radically different ways, a reflection of the warring attitudes in the district and their distinct pitches as candidates.
Lundquist, a Democrat who has made climate change a key part of her platform, is pushing to end the long trend of electing City Hall insiders. She has denounced “pay to play” politics and sworn off campaign donations from real estate developers and fossil fuel companies, arguing that voters should not have to wonder if such money shapes decisions.
At a North Hills forum, Lundquist prodded Lee about his recent work as a consultant and lobbyist, pointing out that his firm had worked for companies that have financial interests at stake in the city, including the real estate developer Borstein Enterprises. When Lee touted his local donations, some Lundquist supporters scoffed.
“He probably has all the lobbyists on speed dial,” said Deirdre Bolona, a Porter Ranch resident backing Lundquist, pointing to outside spending by the oil and gas industry to support Lee.
And when the FBI raided the Department of Water and Power, Lundquist put out a video on Facebook reiterating that Lee was the “handpicked candidate” of the DWP workers union, which has sponsored an outside committee that has spent heavily to support him.
Lee, a Republican, has tried to fend off such arguments by recasting his City Hall experience. (He also said he had worked only briefly for Borstein on a project with community support.) At a West Hills forum, he said that although Lundquist was trying to cast him as “some person that is roaming the halls of City Hall,” he had chosen a life of public service.
“Donations do not influence my decision-making,” Lee said in an email, responding to a question about why he had not forgone developer donations. “I am and always will be focused on representing the community at City Hall.”
Lee has also billed himself as a needed naysayer to the prevailing views at City Hall as a “fiscal conservative.” At Valley forums, Lee has repeatedly argued that Lundquist has the same refrain about homelessness as the rest of the council -- that “it’s a housing crisis” — without also recognizing that it is a “drug crisis” and “mental illness crisis.”
He has tied those issues to the criminal justice system, proclaiming he would push to repeal Proposition 47, a California initiative that downgraded drug possession and some theft crimes to misdemeanors instead of felonies.
“We need to give back the power to our police officers,” Lee told a North Hills crowd to enthusiastic applause.
Lee has decried Lundquist’s support for L.A.’s Green New Deal, a package of proposals backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city politicians, arguing that it would cost the city thousands of jobs. And Lee has also attacked Lundquist for not flatly opposing a possible route along Nordhoff Street for a bus rapid transit project that Metro is planning.
Lundquist “is in lockstep with the people who are currently running the city,” said Jay Beeber, a former candidate for the seat who has since endorsed Lee. “I think she represents the status quo much more than John does.”
Lundquist said that she wants Metro to study more than one route, not just Nordhoff, and would not rule out possible options until there had been more studies and community outreach.
She argued that Green New Deal policies will produce more jobs in clean energy and that “when it comes to climate change, it’s far costlier to not handle the problem than to take the actions we need to take.”
And Lundquist says Lee is misstating her position on homelessness, arguing that housing is the biggest — but not the only — factor driving homelessness. When someone is housed, Lundquist said in an interview, it is much easier for them to get off drugs or stay on their medication.
At candidate forums, she has repeatedly complained that while residents of the council district are being taxed for homeless housing, none of the new units funded by Proposition HHH have been approved in the area.
Railing against City Hall is a balancing act for Lee. Even as he laments government waste, taxation and City Council groupthink, he has touted his experience working for Councilmen Mitchell Englander, Greig Smith and Joel Wachs.
At one point, he told a Granada Hills crowd that if elected, “I don’t need time to learn where the copier or printer is” — a remark that landed to a mixture of groans and applause.
“He has to run in a district where outsider arguments are far more formidable ... but every advantage he has in this race is because he is the insider,” said Eric Hacopian, a political consultant who is not advising either candidate.
Lee has raised more money than Lundquist in the race, but Lundquist has made up some of that gap with taxpayer matching funds from the city. Both have benefited from a deluge in spending from independent committees that can raise unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates but are legally barred from coordinating with them.
The two candidates will face off in a runoff election on Aug. 13.
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