In West L.A., two lawyers clash over an open City Council seat, encampments and policing
Earlier this year, a homeless encampment along a Venice Boulevard median mushroomed to 60 tents — bringing thefts, fires, fistfights, drug use and a pronounced division in the heart of Venice.
By June, the city of Los Angeles shut down the squalid urban village and relocated roughly two-thirds of the residents, mostly to motel rooms. The rest scattered to other locales and a chain-link fence went up, closing the unauthorized campground around Centennial Park and the neighboring public library.
Now the clearing of the park has emerged as yet another point of contention between two lawyers running to represent historically tolerant Venice and much of the Westside on the Los Angeles City Council. Traci Park supported the Centennial Park cleanup, rooting on police, outreach workers and others who did the work. Erin Darling called the closure a failure, saying it was done without adequate planning on where to move unhoused people.
“For me, it exemplifies the Whac-A-Mole approach,” Darling said. “Instead of focusing our energy on housing people and providing care, we’re just pushing people one or two blocks over.”
Countered Park: “Leaving these people living this way is not humane, it’s not compassionate, it’s not progressive. We cannot let the search for the perfect solution get in the way of the good solution.”
Voters will determine whether the 11th District continues to be represented by an outspoken liberal, with Darling supporting many of the policies of outgoing Councilman Mike Bonin, or swings in the other direction, with Park representing a more law-and-order approach.
The temperature in the contest has been rising, as the two candidates, who live about one mile apart in Venice, depict each other as too extreme. Park describes Darling as an ideologue and deems his most prominent supporters “very far left.” Darling hits Park as too conservative, chiding her support of “failed Republican-backed recalls” of Bonin and Dist. Atty. George Gascon.
For the tourists, it may be the Ocean Front Walk of old: quirky shops, beachfront restaurants, sculpted bodies and assorted sketchy characters. But for residents, last summer’s effort to clear nearly 200 tents from the promenade didn’t do the job.
The rhetoric from others has grown even more inflammatory. DemocratsForIntegrity.com, a website of murky origins, called Darling “a far-left extremist,” while the People’s City Council labeled Park a “fascist” for attending a rally in support of controversial Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
“The soul of the Westside is to help people and to be kind and to be nice,” said Dermot Givens, a political consultant who once worked for the Venice-area Councilmember Ruth Galanter. “Is the soul of the Westside going to change? We’ll see.”
Darling finished first in the June primary, with just under 35% of the vote, to win a spot in November’s general election. Park came in second with 29%, with six other candidates far behind.
Darling’s strong showing came despite being outspent by all but two of his opponents. The 41-year-old relied heavily on a network of volunteers, particularly young people, to get out the vote. Park, 46, raised and spent more than anyone in the field, her outlay more than doubled by an independent expenditure committee powered by the city’s police union and real estate interests.
Park is expected to carry that financial advantage through the fall campaign, which culminates with a final day of in-person voting on Nov. 8.
Darling grew up in Venice, the son of a filmmaker father and a mother who taught at Santa Monica College. He surfed and attended Santa Monica High School before moving to Berkeley, where he was first an undergraduate and later attended law school.
Darling’s law career has included a stint representing low-income tenants at the Eviction Defense Network. His legal practice has focused on civil rights, including the case of a woman who recently accused Torrance police of assaulting her when she went to the city to protest racist behavior within the force.
Park was raised in Downey and Apple Valley by a single mother, who worked as a school secretary. They often visited grandparents who lived in what would later become L.A.’s 11th council district. Park worked her way through Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
She has spent most of her legal career representing cities and other government agencies, most recently as a partner at Burke, Williams & Sorensen, a giant in the field. Park has advised and trained clients on issues such as gender parity and defended cities against litigation.
In the first round of the election, Darling distinguished himself as the only candidate who opposed the city ordinance that allows council members to request camping bans in certain protected zones, such as around libraries and parks. That aligned him with Bonin and against Park, who said she would not hesitate to invoke the ordinance, known as 41.18.
The City Council voted 11 to 3 in August to prohibit homeless people from setting up tents within 500 feet of schools and day-care centers. Park strongly supported the majority, saying the move would help protect the health and safety of children. Darling declined to say whether he would have voted for the prohibition, but he said he would not try to thwart it, now that it is city law.
Darling argues that more needs to be done on the supply side of the homelessness crisis.
“We have to move with alacrity to convert motels so that people can live there,” Darling said. “We need adaptive reuse of commercial space that’s not coming back, using modular housing, using tiny homes and using city land.”
One candidate would carry on the progressive ways of retiring incumbent Mike Bonin. But most others in L.A.’s Council District 11 say they would increase policing and remove homeless encampments.
Park’s political activism began in late 2020, when she learned that the city planned to convert a Ramada Inn into a shelter for the homeless, across the street from her Spanish-style bungalow.
Park said she and her allies suggested a number of restrictions on who could occupy the 33 rooms in the former Ramada property: individuals over 55, families with children or women who had been the victims of domestic violence.
“Every single thing we tried to do, they said ‘No,’“ Park said of Bonin’s office. So she joined an effort to recall Bonin and declared her candidacy to replace him. The recall effort failed for lack of signatures, but Bonin declined to run for a third term, saying his work was exacerbating his struggles with depression.
The candidates’ divergence on homelessness does not end with the camping ban.
Park supports shared living spaces for some unhoused people, especially the young. Darling says congregate housing does not work because the vast majority of homeless people won’t move without a room of their own. Darling supports a measure on the November ballot that would put a minimum 4% levy on property sales of $5 million and above, to raise as much as $1.1 billion a year for permanent housing. Park is unsure about the proposal.
A plan to build 140 units of homeless housing on two city-owned parking lots along the Venice Boulevard median also divides the candidates. Park says the project is in a potentially dangerous tsunami zone and out of character for the neighborhood adjacent the Venice canals. Darling said the city, and his opponent, need to stop finding excuses to block new construction that would help alleviate the crisis.
The duo’s views on police and policing also diverge dramatically. Park wants to beef up the LAPD. She would increase the force from its current level of less than 9,300 to a minimum of 10,000. Darling says that too much of the city’s budget has been funneled to police and that more money should go to other services, including mental health workers. He has not named the right size for the LAPD.
Each campaign tries to paint the other as extreme. Park’s campaign consultant, Rick Taylor, points out that Darling once asked for donations to a leftist organization, Dignity and Power Now, that called for radical changes in government’s approach to public safety. Taylor says Council District 11 won’t support a candidate who favors deep cuts in policing.
Darling scoffs at the suggestion he is anti-police, saying Park’s campaign is smearing him when he has merely supported a broader thinking about how to make the public safe. Darling noted that the organization he supported was mainstream enough that a ballot measure it backed in 2020 to redistribute the county’s public spending was approved by 57% of voters.
Darling, in turn, said it was Park who showed she was out of step with the community. She was in her youth a registered Republican and attended a March rally for Villanueva, the sheriff who has defied civilian oversight.
Darling called his opponent a “Villanueva Democrat.” Park insisted, despite her praise, she has not endorsed Villanueva in his current bid for reelection. She said she has been a “committed Democrat” for years and noted her endorsements from party leaders, including former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and State Treasurer Fiona Ma. She also has the support of business organizations and some unions, including many that represent police and firefighters.
Darling, who registered with the Green Party as a young man, says his list of endorsements also rebuts claims of his extremism. Among the Democrat’s backers are the county Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, state Sen. Ben Allen and state Assembly members Isaac Bryan, Laura Friedman and Tina McKinnor and a host of unions, including those representing carpenters and healthcare workers.
Voters are angrier than ever about homelessness and aren’t confident elected officials can adequately address the crisis, a survey of focus groups finds.
Darling is facing additional flak. Records show that when he served for 2½ years on the Venice Neighborhood Council, a civic advisory panel, he attended only about half the meetings. He had similarly spotty attendance when he served as an appointee of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on the county commission that oversees beaches and harbors.
Park’s campaign said his “dismal” attendance is an indication of Darling’s lack of commitment to public service. Darling said he felt he could get more done for citizens through his practice as a civil rights lawyer and — in the case of the county post — that he missed some meetings when he got caught in the COVID-19 lockdown after joining his wife, a graduate student, on the East Coast.
Darling said it is Park who has been absent from community work, only engaging less than two years ago because of the homeless shelter in her neighborhood. Darling asked: “Where has she been?”
The push to remove the tent encampment in Centennial Park was coordinated by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, with an assist from the city attorney’s office. Workers from the St. Joseph Center said they began conversations in the spring with people in the park about alternative living spaces, though Bonin said his office did not participate in the effort, which he contended “was launched without identified housing resources.”
Almost all of the 44 park residents offered temporary housing remain inside, though only six have moved to permanent homes, according to the St. Joseph Center. An unknown number of others, but as many as 22, did not accept temporary housing offers and remain “unaccounted for” by outreach workers.
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, president and chief executive of the St. Joseph Center, said the organization is determined to get the others in permanent homes. “We don’t take this lightly,” said Adams Kellum. “We remain committed to the hearts and souls of the people.”
To Darling, more could have been done. “Now they fenced the park off completely. Everything is empty. No one can go in there,” he said. “So, to save the village they destroyed it, right?”
Park looks at the same scene and sees progress, with the temporary housing of the majority. “The area was horribly damaged from the encampment,” she said. “It needs to be restored and returned to its intended use as a park for the public, for everyone’s safe use and enjoyment.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.