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Nithya Raman inspires progressives as she holds significant lead in L.A. council race

Nithya Raman
Nithya Raman, shown earlier this year, appears close to unseating incumbent David Ryu on the Los Angeles City Council.
(Los Angeles Times)

When urban planner Nithya Raman launched her bid for Los Angeles City Council last year, she was best known in her neighborhood for helping homeless residents get meals, showers and other aid.

By the time voters cast their ballots, the 39-year-old Silver Lake resident had become a powerful symbol for progressive activists, not just across the city but in other parts of the country, securing the endorsement of Bernie Sanders and favorable profiles from Vogue and the Daily Beast.

While votes are still being counted, Raman is in a strong position to unseat Councilman David Ryu, making him the first L.A. council member to be ousted in 17 years. Her first-place showing — she had 52.4% as of Wednesday — represents “a political earthquake” for City Hall, said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former councilman and county supervisor who heads the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

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Yaroslavsky, who endorsed Ryu, predicted a Raman victory would embolden the movement that rallied for her — younger, grassroots activists who favored Bernie Sanders and are frustrated with City Hall — to get even more involved in the 2022 election, when eight council seats and three citywide seats will be up for grabs.

“Anybody at City Hall who doesn’t recognize the significance of this election,” he added, “is making a mistake.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Raman had not declared victory, and Ryu had not conceded. But it was clear that Raman was one of several local candidates pushing L.A.'s political culture leftward.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell — who also ran with the endorsement of Bernie Sanders — easily defeated Councilman Herb Wesson in their race for county supervisor. While in Sacramento, Mitchell fought for racial justice measures, bills aimed at ensuring greater transparency on police misconduct and new restrictions on use of force by officers.

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In another contest, former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón, seen as a longtime reformer on public safety, held a commanding lead over the incumbent, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. Gascón was a coauthor of Proposition 47, the bill that reduced a number of felonies to misdemeanors, and led the charge for the expungement of marijuana convictions.

In her race against Ryu, Raman offered a detailed progressive policy platform, calling for the creation of a network of homeless access centers, arguing for the LAPD to become a much smaller armed force and promoting a rent forgiveness plan that would deliver cash reimbursements to small landlords and tax credits to larger ones.

L.A. City Council race is now a proxy fight between establishment and leftist Democrats, with figures such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton weighing in.

On Wednesday, activists pointed to all three races and said L.A.'s political leaders can no longer dismiss those fighting the status quo on homelessness, public safety and other issues.

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“I hope you all paid very close attention to what happened in our city last night,” said Raman supporter Sophie Strauss, speaking during the council’s regular meeting. “Regardless of national politics, we are seeing resounding victories for our progressive people-powered movement here in LA.”

A compelling presence on social media, Raman posted easy-to-understand video explainers on city government and worked closely with activist groups such as Democratic Socialists of America-Los Angeles, where she is a member, and Ground Game L.A. While she agreed that many voters were angry and frustrated, she said they were ultimately sending a positive message in her race against Ryu.

“I think people felt really hopeful that, with the right policies, with people in power who felt the same sense of urgency, that we could see something different,” she said.

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Over the course of her campaign, Raman mobilized an army of 2,000 volunteers and turned to many in Hollywood for financial support.

Roughly a third of her $953,000 campaign haul came from writers, actors, directors and others in the entertainment industry, according to Ethics Commission filings. More crucially, she launched her campaign just as the city had switched its municipal elections to even-numbered years, coinciding with this year’s presidential campaign.

That change produced much higher turnout among younger, poorer and nonwhite voters across L.A., said political science professor Fernando Guerra, who led the commission that pushed for the switch to the city’s election schedule. Raman also ran in a year when progressive Democrats were pitted against liberal Democrats in local contests — with progressives gaining the upper hand, he said.

“She was able to stake herself out to the left of Ryu in a city and county that’s becoming even more left,” Guerra said. “She captured the growth in that vote.”

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Had the city election dates not changed, Ryu likely would have won reelection, Guerra said.

Councilman David Ryu
Councilman David Ryu speaks during the L.A. County Democratic Party election night watch party at the L.A. Zoo.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Compared to odd-year elections, turnout was indeed through the roof. Five years ago, when Ryu won his seat, the district race drew around 24,000 voters, with turnout registering at around 16%. By Wednesday morning, county election officials had tabulated more than four times the number of ballots, with more to be counted.

Raman said months ago that she chose to run this year in part because of the change in the election dates. Her campaign put a special focus on reaching renters and younger voters in such locations as Koreatown, Los Feliz, Hollywood and the northern end of Sherman Oaks, according to Meghan Choi, one of her campaign managers.

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One of those younger supporters was Miranda Hart, a 26-year-old commercial actress who watched as her friends phone banked for Raman and volunteered on her campaign. Standing outside a polling place in Los Feliz on Tuesday, Hart said she paid much more attention to local races this year than she had previously.

Hart said she liked Raman’s focus on homelessness and saw messages flood her Instagram from friends talking up Raman.

“She’s like a celebrity,” she said. “There’s so much energy around her. I think she’s an outsider and anti-establishment.”

Raman’s strong showing represented a breakthrough for L.A.'s leftist activists, who tried without success to unseat Councilman Mitch O’Farrell in 2017 and fell short twice in two years in their bid to elect educator Loraine Lundquist to a council seat in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

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Bill Przylucki, executive director of the group Ground Game LA, which campaigned for Raman, said he believes L.A.'s elected leaders have long been to the right of the voters they represent. A Raman victory, he said, could prompt other council members to tack further to the left on such issues as public safety, rent forgiveness and the environment.

“We’re moving into a new era, where a lot more of the city’s residents are going to be engaged and aware of City Hall,” said Przylucki, whose group phone banked for Raman.

Ryu described himself as both a reformer and a progressive, having run against an establishment candidate in 2015. The councilman touted his work pushing for new limits on donations from real estate developers, building affordable housing and providing help to renters in need.

Ryu picked up support from some city labor unions, some tenant advocates and the county’s Democratic Party.

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Mark Gonzalez, the chairman of the county Democrats, said he believes too many voters were frustrated by their inability to find work, pay rent or get unemployment benefits in a timely way. “It’s not necessarily this progressive-versus-establishment thing,” he said. “It’s that people are frustrated with the climate that we’re in.”

Yaroslavsky, the former county supervisor, said Raman was a strong candidate with a powerful movement behind her. But she also rode a wave of discontent, he said.

“This wasn’t about David Ryu. This was about what’s happening in the city: the equity issues, the racial reckoning issues, homelessness, what’s happened to City Hall with ethics” and the ongoing FBI corruption probe, he said. “She became the vessel in the campaign for all of those.”

Updates:

1:39 PM, Nov. 05, 2020: This article was updated to reflect that former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had endorsed Ryu.


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