School board member Mónica García has signed the pledge — the one that says she’ll serve all four years if elected to an Eastside seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
Former marketing executive Cyndi Otteson, who lives in Eagle Rock, signed it too. So did Raquel Zamora, a high school counselor who, like Otteson and García, is running in the March 3 election to replace Councilman Jose Huizar.
The only candidate who didn’t grab a pen is former state Sen. Kevin de León. And that’s made him a target for rivals who say he will treat the district, which stretches from downtown and Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, as a two-year steppingstone to higher office.
“He’s just going to use the seat as a springboard to run for mayor, and people are sick of that,” said Zamora, who drafted the pledge and is also owner of Zamora Bros. restaurant in Boyle Heights.
De León, 53, is one of two L.A. political heavyweights who are campaigning for City Council yet also viewed as strong bets to run for mayor in 2022, when Eric Garcetti is scheduled to leave office. The other is Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is looking to return to the council after an 18-year absence.
Both have declined to rule out a run for mayor in 2022. Both have touted their lengthy experience in public office. And both insist that voters have little interest in debates about their future career moves.
Voters are “talking clearly about gentrification and housing insecurity. They’re talking about homelessness,” said De León, who served in the state Legislature from 2006 to 2018. “So I don’t get bogged down in signing silly pledges.”
De León’s opponents disagree, saying voters deserve to know if their next council member will have the time to attend to the needs of the district.
While De León is looking to represent part of the Eastside, Ridley-Thomas is running in a council district that stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor in South Los Angeles. Like De León, Ridley-Thomas says he is focused on the present campaign.
“I’m running for the 10th District because I live here and I care about what’s going on in this district,” he said.
For both men, a 2022 mayoral campaign would be tricky. The winners of this year’s council races won’t be sworn in until December. By then, candidates for mayor will have been raising money for several months.
Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., said Ridley-Thomas and De León would be foolish not to consider a bid for mayor, given their experience and high political profiles. But it also would be unwise for them to promise voters they’ll stay put if there’s a genuine risk they might break that promise, Regalado said.
“That can be important in a tight race — breaking a pledge and having it used against you,” he added.
Ridley-Thomas, who faces term limits, is seeking the seat being vacated by Councilman Herb Wesson. Wesson, who also faces term limits, is in turn running for Ridley-Thomas’ seat on the Board of Supervisors, representing a district that stretches from Carson to Culver City.
The potential seat swap has drawn complaints from Ridley-Thomas’ rivals about an old boys’ network. At a candidate forum last month, three of the other candidates seeking Wesson’s seat committed to serving four full years.
Candidate Grace Yoo, who is waging her second run for the council seat, warned that Ridley-Thomas won’t have the time to attend to the urgent needs of the district if he decides to launch a campaign for mayor soon after taking office.
“You cannot be doing two things,” said Yoo, an attorney and community activist.
Candidate Aura Vasquez, a former member of the city commission that oversees the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has made similar arguments, saying residents of Wesson’s district need someone to focus 100% on rising rents, crumbling sidewalks, climate change and other issues.
“His intention is, ‘Let me keep this seat warm so I can keep moving into higher office,’” said Vasquez, 41. “We deserve better.”
Ridley-Thomas called that assertion untrue. And he argued that voters are much more interested in selecting a council member with a proven track record on homelessness, affordable housing, transportation and environmental issues.
Still, Ridley-Thomas has broached the possibility of a mayoral bid before. In May, he told an audience he had originally planned to spend 18 months in private life after stepping down from the Board of Supervisors, followed by a campaign for office in 2022.
That changed, he said, after he learned he was eligible to run for a third and final four-year term on the council.
“I shared [the information] with my political consultants and some of my advisors,” Ridley-Thomas said during an appearance at the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. “And they said, ‘Listen, you ought to recognize a gift from God when you see it. It’s better to run for step two from the position of having secured step one, rather than going from zero to two.’
“I simply said, ‘Yes, sir,’” he added.
Asked about those statements, Ridley-Thomas said he had been describing a scenario that was “speculative at best.” The effort to make the 2022 election an issue, he said, is a “campaign ploy” by his rivals.
“It’s what opponents do when they don’t have much else to bring to bear,” said Ridley-Thomas, who has served in various elected offices since 1991.
Political ladder-climbing has come up in previous L.A. elections. In 2017, while running for reelection, Mayor Eric Garcetti declined to promise that he would serve out his full second term in office. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while campaigning for reelection in 2008, was pressed on whether he intended to run for governor.
In 2003, while seeking a seat on the City Council, Villaraigosa promised voters he would serve his full four-year term. Roughly a year after he took office, he launched a campaign for mayor.
Voters didn’t seem to mind. Villaraigosa easily defeated incumbent Mayor James Hahn in 2005, and the man he endorsed as his replacement — then-school board member Jose Huizar — went on to win Villaraigosa’s seat.
Still, some in the district view Villaraigosa’s decision to leave the seat early unfavorably. Otteson, one of the candidates running to replace Huizar, said the broken promise “left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”
“It just continues the narrative that politicians can’t be trusted,” she said. “And there’s a lot of distrust in the district.”
That history might help explain why questions about the 2022 mayoral campaign keep coming up in the race to replace Huizar. On Feb. 3, in Eagle Rock, each candidate was asked whether they would serve a full four-year term. De León and the other candidates said yes.
Three days later, at a candidate forum in Little Tokyo, De León and his rivals were asked a more pointed question: Would each of them promise to represent the council district all four years — and not seek another office? Four candidates made the promise. De León declined to do so.
“I promise you to give my dedicated public service the way I’ve done in the Assembly, as well as the Senate,” he said.
García, the school board member, said residents should receive a more straightforward answer.
“The voters deserve clarity about who you are and what you want to do,” she said.