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In West Hollywood election, a famously liberal city appears to take a moderate turn

Voters wait in line to cast their votes in the midterm elections at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.
Voters wait in line to cast their votes in the midterm elections at Plummer Park in West Hollywood on Nov. 8.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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In November 1984, the newly formed city of West Hollywood grabbed the world’s attention when it seated the nation’s first City Council with an openly gay majority.

During that first meeting — with an overflow crowd and national news media on hand — the council passed a slew of progressive policies: a law that rolled back soaring rents to an earlier level, a limit on evictions, a ban on housing and employment discrimination against gay people.

“The City Council is one of the most liberal in the state,” The Times reported.

Among those first council members was John Heilman, a gay, 27-year-old civil rights attorney. He served for 36 years before he and another longtime incumbent lost their at-large seats in 2020 to two younger, more liberal candidates.

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Now, it appears, Heilman could be coming back. But this time, it will be as part of the City Council’s moderate political old guard, backed by the most establishment of institutions: the Sheriff’s Department and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

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“When I was first elected in 1984, I never dreamed that I would still have the opportunity to serve the community today,” Heilman, 65, wrote in a text message. He said voters he spoke to “want council members to focus on public safety, homelessness and basic services” and to “see the city work collaboratively with the business community.”

The results of the West Hollywood election — a generational battle pitting young progressives against older, more moderate candidates, including a sitting mayor and three former longtime councilmen — are still up in the air.

Lauren Meister
West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister, right, speaks at a news conference about reproductive rights at City Hall on May 3. Meister was leading in her bid for reelection.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Twelve candidates competed for three at-large seats.

As of Friday afternoon, preliminary results showed Mayor Lauren Meister — a moderate Democrat who was also backed by law enforcement and the Chamber of Commerce — with a comfortable lead and practically guaranteed seat, with 5,770 votes.

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Heilman was holding onto a second seat with 3,718 votes.

On Nov. 11, he tweeted a victory statement thanking voters who, he said, called for “experienced, practical leaders.” But in recent days, his lead has thinned.

The candidate in third place, who would hold the final open seat, has seesawed throughout the week.

On Friday, Chelsea Byers trailed Heilman by 22 votes. She is a 33-year-old West Hollywood human services commissioner backed by the progressive labor union Unite Here Local 11, which represents hospitality workers.

In fourth place was Zekiah Wright, who was just 54 votes behind Byers. Wright, a 36-year-old attorney also endorsed by Unite Here Local 11, would be the first Black nonbinary person on the council.

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Byers and Wright could not be reached for comment.

For the last two years, the City Council has moved further to the left.

This summer, on the heels of the national defund the police movement, it voted to modestly cut the number of deputies in the West Hollywood sheriff’s station while hiring 30 additional unarmed security guards.

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And last year, the council unanimously voted to implement what was then the highest minimum wage in the country — $17.64 an hour — and to require that full-time workers get at least 96 hours of annual paid sick, vacation or personal leave, with part-time employees getting a proportional amount of paid time off.

A deputy drives past West Hollywood City Hall in a Sheriff's Department SUV on Oct. 28, 2021.
A sheriff’s deputy passes West Hollywood City Hall in 2021. Public safety was a key issue in the November election.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The decisions drew the ire of the Chamber of Commerce and residents concerned about crime — and the praise of progressive labor unions and activists who poured into public meetings.

With the apparent victory of Meister, who voted against the sheriff’s deputy reductions, and the potential return of Heilman, who called those cuts “foolish,” voters appear to have swung somewhat to the middle amid rising concern over crime.

“In West Hollywood, yes, it’s always been seen as very progressive, but a lot of the residents are also aging into more moderate positions,” said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School.

“Progressive and not-progressive doesn’t always cut cleanly on criminal justice issues,” Levinson said. “When people feel their safety is threatened in any way, they tend to not vote as liberal as maybe they otherwise would.”

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Meister, 62, said in an email that “those who voted for me want Council to focus on residents and local issues: public safety, homelessness, protecting our rent-stabilized units, preserving our neighborhoods, and maintaining a healthy environment for our small business community.”

In one campaign mailer funded by Unite Here, Meister and former Councilman John Duran, who also ran for reelection, were said to represent “Republican business interests.”

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A spokeswoman for the union local could not be reached for comment.

In a statement last week, Meister said voters clearly did not want council members serving “outside interest groups.”

She told The Times that those groups include “the defund groups trying to influence Councilmembers and Public Safety Commissioners to cut police”; Unite Here Local 11, “which has pushed policies that negatively impact our long-time businesses and ultimately our residents”; and big developers.

Before she joined the council in 2015, Meister spearheaded a successful 2013 campaign to bring term limits to the council, at a time when all but one member had spent more than a decade in office.

This will be her final term. If Heilman is elected, it will also be his final term.

John Heilman speaking during a West Hollywood City Council meeting in 2019.
John Heilman served for 36 years on the West Hollywood City Council before losing his seat in 2020. If Heilman wins the Nov. 8 election, it will be his final term.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Genevieve Morrill, president and chief executive of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said she was delighted with Meister’s and Heilman’s early leads. The chamber’s political action committee endorsed them and three other candidates.

Throughout most of her 13 years at the chamber, she said, the organization had good communication. But over the last two years, the relationship soured, and communication ground to a halt.

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The early election results, she said, “show that there will be a return to democracy for the City of West Hollywood, to the right to have their voices heard, their safety protected, and the right to operate a business in a fair economic climate without government overreach.”

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