These underdogs may force their better-funded opponents into runoffs for L.A. City Council

Los Angeles City Council candidate Nithya Raman
Los Angeles City Council candidate Nithya Raman could force Councilman David Ryu into a November runoff.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

They didn’t have the campaign cash or the big-name endorsements of their rivals. Neither had been elected to public office.

But a pair of upstart candidates — nonprofit leader Nithya Raman and attorney Grace Yoo — could end up forcing their more established opponents into runoff elections in November, even as other political heavyweights were cruising to victory.

County election officials are still counting ballots. But if the numbers hold, Raman will face off against Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu in a council district that stretches from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake. Yoo could go head-to-head with longtime county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, an elected official for three decades, to represent a Crenshaw-to-Koreatown district.


In L.A. council races, if no candidate wins the majority of the vote, the top two finishers compete against each other in a November runoff. Because L.A.’s municipal election now coincides with the presidential race, the campaign would be unlike any runoff seen before at City Hall, lasting eight months — more than three times longer than previous L.A. runoffs.

That could be an opportunity for lesser-known candidates, giving them more time to knock on doors and connect with voters, said political consultant Dermot Givens, who was not involved in any of the council races.

“That doesn’t cost money. That just takes time — kissing babies, shaking hands, letting people know who you are,” Givens said.

Attorney Grace Yoo after a candidate forum in January
Attorney Grace Yoo was looking to force county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas into a runoff in a City Council race in South Los Angeles.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

But runoff campaigns can also be more costly. Because presidential elections have higher turnout, candidates are already having to spend more money to reach more voters, said political consultant Larry Levine.

That pool of voters should grow even more in November, he said. “Now they’ll be campaigning to a universe of voters that is three or four times larger” — and for a longer period of time, Levine added.


Ryu, who was elected five years ago as a City Hall outsider, had a long list of advantages this time around: The councilman raised and spent more than $1 million in contributions, more than any other L.A. council candidate. He was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and a host of Democratic politicians, labor unions and business groups.

Backers said he had followed through on his promises, including clamping down on campaign money from real estate developers and making spending in his office more transparent. Cindy Chvatal, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners Assn., called him a “remarkable” councilman, saying he had worked to fix sidewalks, repair streets and respond promptly to calls from constituents.

“If you look at his record, and you look at what he’s done, he’s served the district really well,” she said.

Raman mobilized progressive activists who complained that Ryu had fallen short on housing and homelessness. She brought grass-roots energy to a campaign that sought to bring in voters who were disconnected from local politics. Her campaign also picked up buzz from celebrities such as Natalie Portman and Jane Fonda.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas appears at a City Council candidate forum in January.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Raman’s strong showing represents “a complete bucking of conventional politics and the way people think elections get done in Los Angeles,” said Walker Foley, senior organizer with the environmental group Food & Water Action, which endorsed Raman and has pushed to phase out gas-fired power plants.

Raman, he said, built a “powerful, at-the-door movement that spoke to voters and got people to the polls.”

Her platform included setting up a network of community centers to assist unhoused Angelenos and speeding L.A.’s transition to clean energy. As of Wednesday evening, Raman was about 7 points behind Ryu.

In the race to succeed Councilman Herb Wesson in South Los Angeles, Yoo faces more of an uphill climb. Election results posted Wednesday showed her trailing Ridley-Thomas by a significant margin.

Yoo campaigned as a fighter for regular citizens. She turned the spotlight on her legal battles with city leaders over their plans to cut down trees in Hollywood, redraw council district boundaries and construct a 27-story residential tower in Hollywood. Although she did not win the redistricting fight, the city agreed to preserve many of the shade trees and was ordered by a judge to repeal its approval of the tower.

On Wednesday, Yoo said she has begun conferring with lawyers about the county’s mishandling of Tuesday’s election — including inaccurate ballots, long lines at polling places and malfunctioning equipment — to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated in the November runoff election.

“The county’s inability to put on a seamless election is completely outrageous,” she said. “I can’t believe Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas can’t get this right.”

Councilman David Ryu
David Ryu campaigns in 2014 in Sherman Oaks. He would be elected in 2015.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Ridley-Thomas said voters are “smart enough to know that implementing new procedures always requires improvement.” The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has already launched a review of the “pros and cons of the new system,” he said.

Ridley-Thomas ran on a platform of experience, highlighting his work in fighting homelessness, adding rail lines and reopening the problem-plagued Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook. Voters in the district, he said last month, were in no mood to experiment.

The district’s “voters got it right — 47% MRT, 24% Yoo,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Tuesday was far from a bad night for political veterans and incumbents. In an Eastside race to replace Councilman Jose Huizar, former state Sen. Kevin de León appeared to be avoiding a runoff, according to results tallied as of Wednesday evening.

In the San Fernando Valley, Councilman John Lee had a solid lead over college educator Loraine Lundquist in a rematch to represent neighborhoods including Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.

Three other incumbents — Paul Krekorian, Nury Martinez and Marqueece Harris-Dawson — sailed easily to reelection.