Former City Hall aide John Lee claimed victory early Wednesday in a closely watched race against astrophysicist and college educator Loraine Lundquist to represent Chatsworth, Granada Hills and other parts of the northwest San Fernando Valley on the Los Angeles City Council.
The results, although not yet certified, showed Lee with a sizable lead over Lundquist with all election precincts reporting.
Although the race was nonpartisan — no “R” or “D” appeared next to candidate names on the ballot — the special election mobilized Democrats eager to flip a seat long held by Republicans. Lee is registered as a Republican, but as he declared victory at his Porter Ranch headquarters, he vowed to embody “bipartisan representation.”
“Too much in this campaign it was about red versus blue,” Lee told his supporters to cheers. “And it just shouldn’t be. It should be about community.”
In recent years, the Valley seat has been the sole one held by a Republican on a City Council dominated by Democrats. But rising numbers of Democrats and nonpartisan voters in the district, along with thinning numbers of registered Republicans, generated excitement on the left about the Valley race.
Lee, who worked for the last councilman to hold the seat, campaigned on his long history in the district and billed himself as a fiscal conservative who would be a “different voice” on the council.
Lundquist, a Democrat who teaches at Cal State Northridge, pitched herself as a change agent who would disrupt the status quo and break up the long dynasty of City Hall aides assuming the seat.
“No matter what happens here tonight, this movement is going to continue,” Lundquist told a cheering crowd of supporters at her campaign headquarters in Chatsworth.
Her campaign consultant Jesse Switzer lamented Tuesday that “campaigns that appeal to baser instincts and fear are still somewhat effective.” Although Democrats mobilized around her, Switzer said the Lundquist campaign had not run on political party, but bigger issues such as “how climate change affects us all.”
Lee follows a well-worn path to City Hall in this district: He was the chief of staff to the last councilman, Mitchell Englander, just like Englander and the councilman before him. He is the third Asian American and the second Korean American to ever be elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
The hottest issue in the Valley race was homelessness. Although there are fewer people living on the streets in the area than in any other L.A. council district, the question of how to confront the crisis has been a pressing one for voters.
Lundquist, who embraces a “housing first” approach, lamented that the council district has failed to spend the money that taxpayers are already paying for housing and services. None of the homeless housing funded under Proposition HHH has been approved in the council district. Nor have any of the new “bridge housing” shelters been set up there.
Lee argued that there needs to be more focus on mental health and drug addiction and vowed to push for the repeal of Proposition 47 — a California initiative that downgraded drug possession and some theft crimes to misdemeanors instead of felonies — as part of his plan to address homelessness.
Lundquist also made climate change a key focus of her campaign, energizing environmentalists and progressives in a district that suffered from the Aliso Canyon methane disaster. Lee and his allies argued that her push for L.A.'s Green New Deal would drive up electric bills and eliminate jobs.
The Valley race spurred a deluge of spending from outside groups, which cannot legally coordinate with the candidates but can raise and spend unlimited amounts to back them, funding mailers, online ads and other outreach to voters.
The union that represents most workers at the Department of Water and Power sponsored a committee that spent more than $290,000 to support Lee, bankrolling mailers that accuse Lundquist of having an “extremist agenda.” Lee also benefited from independent spending by business groups and the union that represents Los Angeles Police Department officers.
Lundquist, in turn, benefited from independent spending by a committee funded heavily by hedge fund manager Aaron Sosnick, which spent more than $210,000 in the race and sent out mailers attacking Lee as the candidate of Big Oil. Outside groups sponsored by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and environmental groups also spent money to promote Lundquist.
The Valley seat went up for grabs this year because Englander stepped down to take a job with a sports and entertainment firm last year. Former Councilman Greig Smith was then appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis in the months ahead of the special election.
Lee will have little time in office before having to defend the seat. Because of the timing of the special election, voters in the northwest Valley will go to the polls again to choose a council member in March 2020.
Lundquist said Tuesday night that she had not yet decided if she would run again in March.