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In L.A.’s election, Ukraine and the role of NATO emerge as campaign issues

 Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, pictured last year, assailed the Democratic Socialists of America over the group’s call to pull the U.S. out of NATO.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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L.A.’s local election campaigns traditionally have been framed around neighborhood-level issues — crime, housing, traffic congestion and, in more recent years, the homelessness crisis.

But this year, the bloody invasion of Ukraine by Russia could change that. Several candidates in the June 7 election have begun criticizing the Democratic Socialists of America, whose supporters in L.A. are looking to unseat at least two City Council members, over the group’s response to the overseas conflict.

Days after Russian troops entered Ukraine, the DSA issued a statement calling for the U.S. to withdraw from NATO, which serves as a defense pact for much of Europe and North America. Although the statement denounced Russia’s decision to invade, it also argued against further intervention in Ukraine, and said the U.S. should end the “imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”

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Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who is seeking reelection in a district with several Ukrainian churches and cultural institutions, said such statements send the wrong message — both to Ukraine and to the rest of Europe.

Voters, he said, should see a connection between those “irresponsible” stances and labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, a candidate backed by the DSA’s L.A. chapter.

“He’s embraced and is endorsed by DSA, and they have very reckless and dangerous positions. One of them is to abolish the police,” said O’Farrell, whose district spans from Echo Park to Hollywood. “And so I think those positions are out of step with reality.”

Soto-Martinez, in turn, accused O’Farrell of using an international crisis to distract voters from policies that are resulting in evictions and homelessness. He said his campaign is backed by a broad coalition — one that includes DSA.

“And while I personally don’t believe we should pull out of NATO during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the work they do on the ground in our city is why we value our collaboration in this local race,” Soto-Martinez said in a statement.

Asked about the DSA’s stance on police abolition, Soto-Martinez said he wants more mediators, mental health counselors and programs that make major progress tackling economic and racial inequality and “root causes of crime.”

“Once we do that, like Norway, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Iceland, we won’t need armed officers,” he said.

The back-and-forth comes as the DSA’s L.A. chapter is mobilizing its election volunteers, sending them to knock on doors not only for Soto-Martinez but also for Eunisses Hernandez, a public policy advocate running to unseat Councilman Gil Cedillo.

Neither Hernandez nor a campaign aide had comment on the DSA statement when contacted by The Times.

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Cedillo, whose district stretches from Highland Park to Koreatown, said he supports economic sanctions on Russia and continued U.S. membership in NATO.

“DSA has every right to their position, I just fundamentally disagree with them,” he said. “Both Sen. Bernie Sanders and I agree on this very fundamental core issue.”

Iryna Vasylkova speaks at a podium
Iryna Vasylkova, cultural diplomacy program director with the Ukrainian Art Center, speaks on the city’s vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The DSA’s message on Ukraine has not just gotten the attention of politicians in L.A. Last month, one White House staffer called the statement “shameful,” prompting a rebuttal from DSA’s L.A. chapter. It has also become a campaign issue in several political campaigns in New York.

O’Farrell, Cedillo and other council members have been taking steps to show their support for Ukraine in recent days. Council members have denounced the invasion, urged the city’s pension funds to divest from Russian assets and launched efforts to make Kyiv a sister city.

Councilman Paul Koretz, who is running for city controller and co-authored the Ukraine resolution, said his mother’s family fled Kyiv a century ago to escape Russian pogroms.

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Koretz said he’s been sickened by images of children and adults murdered in Ukraine. And he called the DSA’s push to withdraw from NATO “insanity” — saying such a move would leave the nation’s European allies more vulnerable to attack.

“Abandoning NATO just makes me shake my head and wonder what these people are thinking,” he said.

Councilman Kevin de León, appearing at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Hollywood, was also critical of the DSA statement. “I’m not sure they’re well equipped to deal with a real-life matter — thousands of people who are being massacred right now,” said De León, a candidate for mayor.

Hugo Soto-Martinez, a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, speaks with visitors to a farmer's market in Hollywood.
Hugo Soto-Martinez, a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, is running to unseat Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The DSA’s International Committee has been highly critical of NATO, calling it “a tool for imperialist expansion and plundering.”

The DSA put its call to pull out of NATO in its political platform last year, renewing that message after Russia’s invasion. DSA-LA, the group’s L.A. chapter, circulated DSA’s statement on Ukraine and NATO and called for an end to “military and economic warfare on all sides.”

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Tal Levy, chair of the electoral committee for DSA-LA, said U.S. participation in NATO has been “a big driver of militarized approaches to conflicts in Europe.”

Levy said he too believes O’Farrell is attempting to use the DSA’s statement as a distraction. And he defended his group’s call to abolish the LAPD, saying city leaders need to start removing police from duties that “do not require armed officers.”

“If we want to talk long term, DSA believes we should build toward a society where armed policing is not necessary,” he said.

DSA-LA has been working to expand its reach into City Hall for years. In 2020, the group canvassed and operated phone banks for urban planner Nithya Raman, who went on to unseat Councilman David Ryu.

During that campaign, Ryu also attempted to make an issue of Raman’s DSA ties, pointing to the group’s calls to defund and abolish the police. He became the first incumbent council member to lose his seat in 17 years.

Since then, DSA-LA has also called for police officers to be barred from forming labor unions. And it plans to assemble a voter guide for its 4,800 members on the upcoming election, Levy said.

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Raman, who is a member of the DSA’s L.A. chapter, described the group as a “big-tent organization.”

“While I support their positions on important issues like the need for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, I don’t align with them on everything — including their comments on NATO,” she said.

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