Nearly $2 million spent on race for open L.A. council seat


In a hotly contested Harbor area campaign where union support has loomed large, nearly $2 million has been spent in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote to fill a rare open seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

Five of 11 contenders vying in the special election to replace former Councilwoman Janice Hahn have raised more than $100,000, according to campaign filings posted Friday. Union support has been split among three labor-friendly front-runners.

Candidate Pat McOsker, the former head of the city firefighters union, has benefited from nearly $355,000 in independent spending by several city employee unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Service Employees International Union.


The unions have sent out mailers attacking the top fundraisers in the race, including Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena).

At the same time, several other unions, including the Teamsters, have given endorsements and thousands of dollars in financial support to Furutani. The Los Angeles Police Protective League has spent more than $72,000 on behalf of police officer Joe Buscaino.

Labor unions squaring off against each other is more the norm than a novelty in heavily Democratic Los Angeles, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

“The notion that labor is a single interest in Los Angeles has never been true,” he said, citing the 2001 mayoral race, when many city employee unions supported James Hahn but the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor supported Antonio Villaraigosa.

In fact, Sonenshein said, “it’s more remarkable when they all work together.”

He said labor is especially strong in the 15th Council District, which stretches from San Pedro to Watts, because many residents work in union jobs related to the Port of Los Angeles.


Members of SEIU Local 721, which represents city and county workers, have been going door-to-door for McOsker.

The union’s president, Bob Schoonover, said the neighborhood campaign for McOsker is as large or larger than one his union launched earlier this year in support of a candidate running against Councilman Bernard Parks.

In that election, labor unions spent more than $1.2 million in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Parks, a budget hawk who called for layoffs and furloughs and argued that city employee pensions are too generous.

If no candidate receives 50% of the vote Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will square off in a runoff election Jan. 17. That means the winner will arrive on the council a few months before budget negotiations heat up and lawmakers try to close an estimated $200-million to $250-million deficit.

Schoonover said the union supports McOsker because of his past efforts to minimize cuts affecting employees. “He’s been in our corner quite a few times,” Schoonover said.

In a recent candidate forum, McOsker said that if elected to the City Council, “Unions will influence my vote, working people will have a voice.”

Buscaino, too, says he will stand up for city workers and has pledged “not to touch police and fire pensions.” He kicked his campaign off early, flooding voters with mailers promising that he would stand up for public safety and bring jobs to the district.

Several other candidates in the race, including Furutani, businessman Jayme Wilson and former Hahn staffer Gordon Teuber, say reforms to the city’s pension system are necessary to help close the budget gap.

Because many of the candidates live in San Pedro, Sonenshein believes the vote there may be split. That means that the election could be decided by other parts of the barbell-shaped district, which includes Wilmington and Harbor City.

“If one candidate has a strong base there that could help them break away from the pack,” Sonenshein said.

Furutani seems to have focused much of his efforts outside San Pedro, with a campaign office in Watts and mailers touting his endorsements from popular black leaders, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

His campaign also has sent out separate mailers printed in both English and Spanish, with a list of endorsements from Mayor Villaraigosa and other Latino leaders.

Former Councilman Rudy Svorinich, who is seeking to rejoin the 15-member panel, has pursued more conservative voters. In automated calls, the chair of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County calls Svorinich “a fiscal conservative and proven Republican leader.”

Sonenshein said the array of competitive candidates makes the race too close to call.

“All you need to do is get in the runoff,” he said.