Days after Angelenos went to the polls, it is still unclear who will go head to head in a May runoff election to represent a sprawling Silver Lake-to-Sherman Oaks City Council district.
Few were surprised to see Carolyn Ramsay, chief of staff to the councilman she hopes to replace, among the top finishers. But the strong showing for two City Hall outsiders, David Ryu and Tomas O'Grady, was more unexpected.
Ryu, a hospital development director, and O'Grady, a nonprofit leader, were locked in a dead heat for second place as votes continued to be tallied. Assuming Ramsay makes the two-way runoff, it will set up an insider-versus-outsider contest with both sides scrambling to pick up votes that went to losing candidates in last week's primary.
Up for grabs are stretches of the Hollywood Hills and Sherman Oaks carried by former state lawmaker Wally Knox and patches of Hancock Park and Toluca Lake, which went for former mayoral aide Teddy Davis. Many potentially influential political players, including the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson, haven't weighed in with endorsements yet.
And thanks to an unusually crowded field in the primary, there are a dozen sidelined candidates to court as those in the runoff seek to broaden their support. The next round of balloting will require the candidates to get a winning majority to the polls in an election experts say could have an even more dismal turnout than the Tuesday primary, where preliminary returns show less than 9% of registered voters cast ballots.
"It's a completely different election for all of them," said Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and is registered to lobby the council.
With so many candidates and so few voters, the primary proved to be wildly unpredictable, political observers said. Fourteen people vied to replace termed-out Councilman Tom LaBonge and even the top finishers snagged only a few thousand votes — 15% or less of the total, according to preliminary results.
Ramsay had obvious advantages: LaBonge had endorsed her, she had a strong network of district connections from years working for the councilman's office and she was among the top fundraisers in the race. A Times analysis in early February found that most of her money came from inside or near the district.
"That's what made the difference for me — the people I've known and worked with for 15 years," Ramsay said. "They showed up for me because they know I look out for their communities."
Ryu and O'Grady both are a few hundred votes behind Ramsay, according to the latest available city figures. They prevailed over other candidates with notable government and political credentials, including another council member's chief of staff and a state legislative aide backed by the county Democratic Party.
Ryu, who works for a community health center and previously served as a senior deputy to former County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, was the top fundraiser in the race, collecting more than $400,000 — about $110,000 more than Ramsay. He also benefited from about $50,000 spent independently by a committee funded largely by a chief executive at a coating company.
Despite his war chest, Ryu was frequently discounted as a contender by other campaigns. A Los Angeles Daily News editorial complained that he "offers mostly platitudes." Many competitors assumed Ryu, who is Korean American, would be unable to muster enough votes in a district mostly made up of white voters.
"People assumed he was only going to get votes from the Asian community and didn't have a broad appeal," but they were wrong, said Dermot Givens, a political consultant not involved in the race.
A Times analysis of the vote found Ryu did lead by big margins in precincts in the southern end of the district in and around Koreatown. But he also polled well in areas of Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and other parts of the district. He said the Asian American vote alone can't account for his strong showing.
Ryu was better at engaging voters one-on-one than in crowded debates, his deputy campaign director Andrew Adams said. "Nobody knew David Ryu a year ago," Adams said. "All the votes that he got are because he went out and knocked on doors."
His main pitch was he would listen to residents and be an independent voice. "I didn't have the support of any establishment," Ryu said.
O'Grady drew strong support in and around Los Feliz — where he lives — Silver Lake and the eastern parts of the Hollywood Hills, according to the unofficial results. Though he raised only a fraction of the campaign cash several of his competitors gathered, he was already familiar to many residents for the work his nonprofit has done planting edible gardens at local schools. Banners at participating campuses feature both his name and that of his charity.
"I've been working in the community for the last four years and people have seen it. People have talked about it," O'Grady said. "You can't make that stuff up."
He also ran for the LaBonge seat four years ago, garnering more than 30% of the vote against the longtime incumbent.
This time around, O'Grady won over some residents annoyed with neighborhood decisions LaBonge had made. In Beachwood Canyon, for instance, O'Grady proposed a plan to plant over a vista that draws tourists snapping photos of the Hollywood sign, an idea welcomed by some residents upset that LaBonge had cleared the spot in the first place.
"I don't know if anyone took Tomas seriously — which they should have," said Eric Hacopian, a political consultant not working for any candidate in the race. "He's a guy who fights for all the causes in the district that other people don't take on. So he has a cadre of really loyal people."
Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in L.A., agreed. "He picked up a whole bunch of micro-issues that he worked pretty effectively."
Both Ryu and O'Grady could face challenges in landing key City Hall backing in a runoff against Ramsay. Hacopian said he expects Wesson would side with Ramsay over Ryu, because Ryu was among Korean American community members critical of a redistricting plan Wesson helped navigate through the council.
"The political establishment will coalesce around Carolyn, because Carolyn comes out of the political establishment," Hacopian said.
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