Can a Bernie bump help these local L.A. candidates?

L.A. City Council candidate Cyndi Otteson
L.A. City Council candidate Cyndi Otteson, second from left, is hoping to get a boost from voters who support Bernie Sanders.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles City Council candidate Cyndi Otteson is hoping for a Bernie Sanders surge.

Otteson, who lives in Eagle Rock, doesn’t have the money or many of the big-ticket endorsements scored by one of her opponents, former state Sen. Kevin de León, who secured the backing of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and raised more than $830,000 for his campaign.

Still, she’s become a favorite among some L.A. progressive activists who are backing Sanders, the odds-on favorite to win California’s presidential primary on Tuesday. And she’s betting that left-leaning voters will like her positions on climate change, transportation and keeping special-interest money out of City Hall.

“There’s something that’s resonating nationally that’s coming down locally,” she said. “The status quo isn’t acceptable.”

For the first time in at least a century, L.A.’s municipal election has been timed to coincide with the state’s presidential primary. The change is expected to increase turnout significantly in contests for local offices, which typically draw interest from a small fraction of the electorate.

Now, with polls showing Sanders well outpacing his rivals in California, some are hoping the grass-roots fervor over the senator from Vermont will translate into a deluge of votes for insurgent candidates looking to shake up the status quo at City Hall.

That makes Tuesday an important test for progressive activists, said Bill Przylucki, executive director of Ground Game L.A., a grass-roots organization that has endorsed Sanders and is getting the word out about its favored candidates.


Ground Game is hoping to reach 100,000 voters, many of whom have never shown up for a municipal election, Przylucki said.

“We’re trying to get them to look at the whole ballot,” he said.

Among the candidates endorsed by Ground Game are Otteson, who is running in an Eastside race to replace Councilman Jose Huizar; Aura Vasquez, who is campaigning as a fighter against climate change in a Crenshaw-to-Koreatown district; and Nithya Raman, who is running in a Silver Lake-to-Sherman Oaks district and wants to create a network of service centers for homeless Angelenos.

Los Angeles City Council candidate Nithya Raman
Nonprofit executive Nithya Raman, one of the challengers seeking to unseat Councilman David Ryu, has picked up support from some L.A. groups that favor Bernie Sanders.
(Los Angeles Times)

All three have the backing of Sunrise Movement Los Angeles, which supports aggressive measures to fight climate change. And all three are competing against established politicians backed by the county’s Democratic Party, the county Federation of Labor and an assortment of big-name politicians, such as Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“If you’re a challenger in one of these races and you’re not tying yourself to Bernie, you’re an idiot,” said Eric Hacopian, an L.A.-based political consultant.

While other presidential candidates have their bases of support, Sanders has “believers,” he said.

“People who are believers are much more active in getting the word out in their community. They’re more engaged and they’re willing to fight,” said Hacopian, a strategist for Councilman Paul Krekorian who has waged independent expenditure campaigns supporting Councilman David Ryu and council candidate Grace Yoo, who is running to replace Councilman Herb Wesson.

So far, Sanders has not endorsed any of the candidates running for office at City Hall. And some experts say it’s far from certain that he will push turnout higher in California — or give a boost to insurgent candidates.

“It’s hard to predict where Sanders supporters are going to go in other races,” said Bill Carrick, an L.A.-based political strategist who is not involved in the presidential or City Council races. “I don’t think we can assume they are a monolith. They are a very diverse group.”

Councilman Gil Cedillo, who has endorsed Sanders, said he expects younger, more progressive voters will turn out in droves for Sanders. But he cautioned that local left-leaning candidates won’t benefit unless they have the money to get their messages out.

“There’s an electorate waiting to vote for them,” he said. “But if they haven’t done the hard work, how’s anybody going to know?”

Vasquez, one of five candidates looking to replace Wesson in a South Los Angeles district, has sent voters several campaign mailers in recent weeks, including one featuring a photo of Sanders that highlights her support for the national Green New Deal. She said she believes Sanders voters are looking for candidates with new ideas who also share his ideals.

“The voters really want to see a fresh face,” she said. “I heard this over and over canvassing — the voters want change.”

Aura Vasquez, a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, supports Bernie Sanders and has featured him in campaign mailers sent to voters.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Otteson said she was torn between Sanders and Warren, but ultimately decided to go with Warren. Raman said she also likes both candidates but will probably back Sanders.

In some ways, the council races bear a resemblance to the political divisions among Democrats at the national level.

While some progressive activists in L.A. have lined up behind Otteson, Vasquez and Raman, the county Democratic Party has endorsed a different field of contenders: De León on the Eastside, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in South Los Angeles and Councilman Ryu in a Hollywood Hills district.

All three are established politicians with huge fundraising advantages who say they have their own record of fighting for progressive ideals. De León, for example, led efforts in Sacramento to protect immigrants who are in the country illegally, wean California’s electric utilities off of fossil fuels and establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Ridley-Thomas also pointed to his support from an array of progressive groups, including United Farm Workers and the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Project. And he argued that voters in his district want someone “knowledgeable and experienced” to tackle homelessness, transportation and other concerns.

“They’re not trying to experiment,” he said. “I mean, these are serious issues.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said voters in his City Council race are looking for candidates with experience. "They're not trying to experiment," he said.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Raman, who is running to unseat Ryu, said she did not seek the endorsement of the county’s Democratic Party, calling it “a political machine that is designed to support and keep incumbents in power.” Even without institutional support, she has raised more than $260,000 for her campaign.

Raman has vowed to seek a temporary rent freeze on rent-controlled apartments and challenge city laws that restrict where homeless Angelenos can sleep or store their belongings. While her campaign welcomes support from all voters, it is looking to tap the enthusiasm of those “who haven’t necessarily been deeply engaged in politics,” she said.

“A lot of people who felt very disconnected from the political system are excited about this primary, and they’re looking for ways to channel their energy,” Raman said.

Ryu campaign manager Estevan Montemayor said it was demeaning to the work of Democratic Party activists to claim that their group is out to protect incumbents, noting that they recently endorsed former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon over Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. A Democratic Party official separately called Raman’s comments “disappointing.”

Montemayor said Ryu has plenty of support from organizations with “strong progressive values,” including the Stonewall Democratic Club and the Hollywood Chapter of the National Organization for Women. And he predicted the councilman will do well with a wide range of Democrats.

“Enthusiasm is high, no matter who they’re voting for for president,” Montemayor said. “Because they want to get rid of Donald Trump.”

Former State Sen. Kevin de León says he has an established track record on progressive issues, fighting to protect immigrants and increase the state's minimum wage.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

One council race where Ground Game and Sunrise Movement are in sync with the county Democratic Party is in the San Fernando Valley, where all three have endorsed Loraine Lundquist, a Democrat running against Councilman John Lee, who changed his registration from Republican to no party preference in December.

Whether Otteson, the candidate running to replace Huizar on the Eastside, will benefit from Sanders voters is far from assured. Polls have shown Sanders is popular among Latinos, which could translate to increased support for the handful of Latinos in the race, including De León and school board member Mónica García.

“We see the Bernie impact on the Eastside,” said Javier Gonzalez, García’s campaign director. “When you talk to young people in Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Highland Park, Bernie is strong there.”

García has not been a favorite among some pro-Sanders groups, which don’t like her support for charter schools. Still, she has been actively courting the Sanders vote, making the case that, like the senator from Vermont, she has been raising alarms about poverty and income inequality for years.

“Other people have run from the problem, and she’s stood firm,” Gonzalez said.