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L.A.'s Green New Deal polarizes voters in a district haunted by environmental disaster

Council candidates John Lee and Loraine Lundquist
L.A. City Council candidates John Lee and Loraine Lundquist respond to yes-or-no questions during a forum last month.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

For decades, campaigns for city office in the San Fernando Valley foothills have been animated by intensely local issues such as traffic congestion, real estate development, and preserving the culture of horse keeping.

But this year, an idea that has erupted on the national stage — the Green New Deal — has become a polarizing issue in Tuesday’s special election to fill a northwest Valley council seat.

Candidate Loraine Lundquist, a Democrat and college instructor, has endorsed L.A.'s version of the Green New Deal, a package of environmental proposals from Mayor Eric Garcetti. She has made battling climate change a core part of her campaign, inspiring activists from across the city.

Former City Hall aide John Lee, a Republican, has sought to turn those positions against her, arguing that Garcetti’s green initiatives will bring financial pain to the district. His supporters have also attacked the plan, arguing that Lundquist has an “extremist” agenda.

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Lundquist “espouses extreme left ideas that don’t reflect the 12th District,” said Councilman Greig Smith, who supports Lee and is representing the district on an interim basis. “The green economy is one of them.”

Whether those types of arguments will take hold is unclear. This stretch of the Valley, historically a conservative stronghold, has lost Republican voters in recent decades and gained Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

The district was also profoundly affected by one of Southern California’s biggest environmental disasters: the massive methane leak from an Aliso Canyon storage facility that pushed thousands of people out of their homes.

“That was a radicalizing experience for a lot of people” in the district, said Ace Katano, a public defender who lives in Hollywood and has been knocking on doors to support Lundquist. “They realized the infrastructure we’ve built around fossil fuels had made their nice, pleasant home unsafe.”

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Porter Ranch resident Marcy Rothenberg, an author and political blogger backing Lundquist, echoed that view. “I don’t think she’s too extreme for a district where we had the largest natural gas leak in the country’s history,” she said.

Canvassing for a candidate
Ash Rosas, left, and John Kerin canvas door-to-door for Los Angeles City Council candidate Loraine Lundquist in Northridge on behalf of the groups Ground Game L.A. and Sunrise Movement.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

Both Lee and Lundquist have called for the shutdown of the Aliso Canyon storage facility. But they are divided on the broader question of how far L.A. should go to confront climate change and pull away from fossil fuels. Backers of both candidates have drawn attention to the Green New Deal as they scramble for votes in Northridge, Granada Hills, Chatsworth and other parts of the district.

The Valley campaign is “a little bit of a microcosm of what’s happening on the national stage around the Green New Deal,” said Colleen Callahan, deputy director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA.

In Washington, D.C., the national version of the Green New Deal — aimed at addressing both climate change and economic inequality — has come under fire from the right and exposed divisions on the left. In L.A., Garcetti’s version of the Green New Deal offers a long list of targets and initiatives, including a push to reduce driving and get Angelenos out of gas-powered cars.

The mayor’s plan calls for 25% of the city’s drivers to be using electric or other zero-emission vehicles by 2025, and to reach 80% by 2035. Garcetti, who has not endorsed either candidate in the race, also called for the phasing out of three natural gas plants run by the Department of Water and Power, the city utility, by 2029.

Lee said L.A.'s Green New Deal is littered with ideas for cutting fossil fuel consumption that are “out of touch with reality” and will push people out of work. Lundquist’s push to rapidly reduce emissions, he argued, would require “a massive investment of taxpayer dollars” that would ultimately cost Angelenos.

Appearing at a candidate forum last month, Lee said he is not a “climate denier” and understands that consumers, businesses and others will need to change their ways.

“But not at the cost of our economy,” he said. “Not at the cost of good-paying jobs.”

John Lee
City Council candidate John Lee participates in a community forum hosted by the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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The warnings about the Green New Deal have resonated with Dianne Ohanesian, a Northridge resident who backs Lee. Ohanesian, a real estate agent, fears a rapid switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy will cause DWP rates to go up, creating a huge burden for Valley ratepayers, especially seniors on fixed incomes.

“There are lots of times in the summer where it hits like 109, 110 degrees,” she said. “So we have to have our air conditioning running. We can’t survive without it.”

Those fears have been amplified by the powerful union that represents most DWP employees, which opposes Garcetti’s plan for the three gas plants. Its political arm, Working Californians, has spent more than $280,000 to support Lee, sending voters mailers that claim that Lundquist will force residents to buy electric cars and tack thousands of dollars onto their utility bills.

One mailer, which features activists raising their fists and carrying a Democratic Socialists of America banner, warns that Lundquist has an “extremist political agenda.”

Lundquist has sought to debunk such claims, calling them “fear mongering and misinformation being spread by the oil industry” and the DWP union. She said the claim that she would force residents to buy electric cars is false and argued that transitioning to clean energy will create many more jobs than it eliminates.

Lundquist has also sought to turn the Working Californians spending against Lee, calling him “the handpicked candidate of the DWP union.”

Campaign mailer
A committee sponsored by the union that represents most Los Angeles Department of Water and Power workers has sent mailers to voters portraying City Council candidate Loraine Lundquist as an “extremist.”
(Working Californians)

“The only reason that they must be spending all this money is because they want to be paid better and raise your rates,” she said at a recent forum.

Lundquist has gotten enthusiastic support from Food and Water Action Fund Cal PAC, a political action committee focused on the environment and consumer protection. The group has recruited volunteers from left-leaning groups such as Sunrise Movement, the Democratic Socialists of America and Ground Game L.A., some of whom have been knocking on voters’ doors while wearing T-shirts that promote the Green New Deal.

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Walker Foley, a senior organizer with Food and Water Action, said the DWP union’s political committee has been engaging in “red baiting,” relying on “the boogeyman of socialism and communism” to scare voters.

“Loraine has set out a policy vision to help all Angelenos,” Foley said. “Working Californians wants to call that socialism, which is kind of ironic, because a public utility is kind of a socialist concept.”

Joshua Smith, spokesman for Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles, said the DWP union is “overreaching” and believes that voters will not see his group’s endorsement of Lundquist as a bad thing.

Loraine Lundquist
Los Angeles City Council candidate Loraine Lundquist, left, speaks with organizer Rana Sharif at a candidates forum in L.A. on July 20.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times )

Despite the allegations of extremism, Lundquist has taken positions that put her at odds with the Democratic Socialists of America and other progressive groups. She said she would have voted with other council members to reinstate a city law limiting where homeless people can sleep in cars — but would have pushed to provide more lots where people can park and sleep.

Unlike the DSA-LA, Lundquist also supports having police officers present at cleanups of homeless encampments and supports L.A.'s decision to host the Summer Olympics in 2028.

Lundquist has pummeled Lee over his backing from the fossil fuel industry, which has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the DWP union committee.

Hedge fund manager Aaron Sosnick has hammered on that message, heavily funding an outside committee that has spent more than $200,000 in the race and produced mailers slamming Lee as an ally of “dirty oil interests.” Lee has fired back by portraying Sosnick as a wealthy outsider with investments in fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and Valero.

Lundquist “tells voters she is an environmentalist, but at the same time is happy to benefit from coal and oil money,” Lee said in a statement Friday. “That is the definition of hypocrisy.”

John Lee
A political committee heavily funded by a New York hedge fund manager has attacked L.A. City Council candidate John Lee over his support from fossil fuel interests.
(Los Angeles City Ethics Commission)

Lundquist campaign consultant Jesse Switzer called that argument “either disingenuous or dishonest,” saying that Lee knows that Lundquist cannot legally control spending by an independent committee. Under campaign finance laws, candidates are barred from coordinating with independent committees that support them, such as the ones funded by Sosnick and the DWP union.

Sosnick, who divides his time between New York and Los Feliz, did not respond to requests for comment.


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