L.A.'s Ryu-Raman council race reflects wider battle over policing among Democrats and the left
The day U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was tapped to be the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee, L.A.'s chapter of Democratic Socialists for America had a blunt message for its followers.
“Kamala is a cop,” the group wrote on Twitter. “And our stance will always be: abolish the police.”
DSA-LA has shown far more enthusiasm for a candidate in a more local contest, raising money, phone-banking and sending postcards for Nithya Raman, the urban planner looking to unseat one-term Councilman David Ryu.
With the campaign in its final weeks, Ryu is now attempting to make Raman supporters like DSA-LA a potent election issue. In campaign mailers, he has told voters that her campaign is powered by “divisive radicals” whose publicly stated agenda is to eliminate the LAPD entirely, leaving Angelenos vulnerable to violent crime.
“It’s dangerous,” said Ryu, who represents a Silver Lake-to-Sherman Oaks district. “And it will have negative consequences for Council District 4 and the city of L.A.”
Raman, in an interview, said DSA-LA is neither radical nor divisive, and is only one of several groups supporting her. She accused Ryu of “fear mongering” on the issue of police reform, saying she has no intention of getting rid of the LAPD.
“In the aftermath of a national reckoning around race and police violence, Councilmember Ryu is choosing to lie and stoke fear around police reform in order to get votes, and use my support of Black Lives Matter against me,” she said. “It’s disgraceful conduct in this moment, and we deserve better leadership.”
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The Ryu-Raman race comes at a turning point for public safety in L.A., with activists, advocacy groups and the two candidates themselves arguing that police officers are being assigned to do too much, responding not just to violent crime but also complaint calls about barking dogs, noisy parties and homeless encampments.
Ryu, who previously worked for a community mental health center in South L.A., voted with his colleagues last week to begin creating a pilot program assigning specialists to respond to certain nonviolent calls, such as those involving suicide threats or substance abuse. He and the council also cut the LAPD budget by $150 million in July, using part of the proceeds to delay furloughs for civilian city workers.
Raman, for her part, has posted a 14,000-word public safety platform saying the city should transform the LAPD into a “much smaller, specialized armed force,” moving police out of such duties as traffic enforcement, vehicle collisions and non-violent mental health crises. That change, she said, would reduce the potential for deadly encounters between police and civilians, while leaving officers “better rested and more attentive” to violent crime.
In an interview, Raman declined to say how much smaller the department should be, or how long it would take for the city to scale back its operations, saying she first needs to determine how the LAPD spends its money.
“I’m hoping to have more of that information once I’m in office,” she told The Times. “I just don’t have a lot of data right now.”
Raman, 39, has emerged as a hero to voters on the left end of the political spectrum, not just in L.A. but across the country. She has scored the backing of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and luminaries like Jane Fonda. Ryu, in turn, racked up endorsements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the county’s Democratic Party.
Those endorsements offered the latest signs that the race has evolved into a proxy fight between establishment Democrats, many of whom favor Ryu, and more leftist groups such as DSA-LA, Ground Game L.A. and Sunrise Movement Los Angeles — all of whom have mobilized for Raman and called for abolition or total defunding of the LAPD.
At times, DSA-LA has gone further, calling officers “pigs” and using the acronym ACAB — “All Cops are Bastards.” Ryu has seized on those types of messages, noting in one recent campaign mailer that the group posted the message “cops and klan go hand in hand.”
“This is what Nithya Raman’s supporters believe. Does she?” the mailer says.
Meghan Choi, Raman’s co-campaign manager, did not directly address those tweets, saying instead that Ryu’s focus on them are “cheap” and “distasteful,” and an attempt to distract voters from Raman’s “unprecedented” grassroots engagement. Raman’s campaign previously hit Ryu over his support from the Police Protective League, the LAPD union that spent nearly $45,000 supporting his reelection earlier this year.
Erin O’Neal-Robinson, who co-chairs DSA-LA’s electoral politics committee, said Ryu should spend less time checking her group’s Twitter feed and more time protecting his constituents, especially those who are homeless. She said she believes DSA-LA is arguing not for the literal end of the LAPD, but rather an end to the department’s current model of armed response.
“There’s no accountability. Their budgets are too high. And those funds should be put into public health and safety programs,” she said. “That doesn’t sound radical to me.”
Ryu has also taken on Raman over her decision to sign a petition saying she supports the People’s Budget, a policy document billed as an alternative to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s spending plan for the current fiscal year, which allocated more than half the city’s unrestricted revenue to the LAPD.
The petition, signed by current and former city employees, called on the council to reallocate law enforcement funding as spelled out in the People’s Budget, which surveyed the spending priorities of nearly 25,000 Angelenos.
On the People’s Budget L.A. website, the People’s Budget proposes to allocate 1.64% of the city’s general fund toward law enforcement, with the savings redirected to rent assistance, food relief, public health programs and other social needs. People’s Budget L.A., a coalition convened by Black Lives Matter-L.A., also says its ultimate goal is the abolition of police and prisons.
Nowhere in California will a voter who refuses to wear a mask be turned away, election officials said.
Ryu criticized Raman for signing the petition, saying she had effectively endorsed an “irresponsible” 98% reduction at the LAPD. That runs counter to the wishes of residents in L.A.'s disadvantaged communities, who want quality community policing and officers who respond in an emergency, Ryu said.
“What they don’t want is to be racially profiled. They want to be treated with respect and dignity,” Ryu added.
Raman accused Ryu of misrepresenting her position, saying she signed the petition because she supported the extensive effort to gauge the public’s views on city spending. “I’ve never provided a set figure for how much of the budget should go to police,” she said.
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-LA, said Raman signed on to the priorities of the People’s Budget — and the idea that police would be the lowest priority — but not any specific percentage. The People’s Budget is simply a survey, she said, not a budget with dollar figures attached.
“All she’s doing is saying she’s in alignment with the will of the people who’ve completed this survey,” Abdullah said.
While the People’s Budget found overwhelming public support for deep cuts at the LAPD, other surveys have been less clear. The Police Protective League, the union representing most LAPD officers, commissioned a poll in August that found that only 13% of L.A. residents favor a reduction of 90% or more in police spending.
Political consultant Eric Hacopian said he has seen polling that shows much greater support for significant police cuts. But a majority of Angelenos still oppose the idea — which might explain Ryu’s strategy, he said.
“He’s trying to consolidate everyone but hardcore progressives,” said Hacopian, who did consulting work earlier this year for a committee that backed Ryu.
Cindy Chvatal, a longtime Ryu supporter who lives in Hancock Park, is one of those worried about the stances taken by groups supporting Raman. The department needs more oversight, she said, and must embrace reforms that address systemic racism.
“But I don’t believe in blowing it all up,” she said. “I believe in fixing it.”
In the campaign’s final weeks, Councilman Mike Bonin has waded in, saying that Ryu is engaging in “red-baiting” by targeting the Democratic Socialists. Bonin, a Ryu supporter, also defended Ground Game L.A., saying that organization had distributed food and done other good work in his Westside district.
Bill Przylucki, Ground Game L.A.'s executive director, confirmed that his group supports the People’s Budget and the push to take police spending below 2%. But he cautioned that such an effort would take several years in L.A. and require the election of many more like-minded people to the council.
“Whether or not Nithya wins,” he said, “we want to take this citywide.”
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