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Choi and O’Farrell in contentious battle for council seat

Mitch O’Farrell is probably the only candidate running for Los Angeles City Council who can do a backward handspring, no problem. Before taking a job a decade ago as a field deputy in the office of Councilman Eric Garcetti, O’Farrell, 52, spent years as a restaurant manager, cruise ship dance instructor and competitive gymnast.

If his path to politics was roundabout, the one forged by his opponent in next week’s race to replace Garcetti in the 13th Council District was uncommonly direct.

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John Choi, 32, volunteered for his first political campaign while he was still a student at UCLA. He went on to work for former Councilman Martin Ludlow, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor before serving 11 months as a commissioner on the Board of Public Works.

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O’Farrell beat Choi in the crowded March primary, winning 19% of the vote to Choi’s 17%. Now the candidates are locked in a bitter runoff election to represent an economically and racially diverse district that takes in the booming neighborhoods of Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park as well as parts of Koreatown, Atwater Village and Glassell Park.

The candidates agree on many key issues — they both oppose the scale of a controversial skyscraper project proposed for Hollywood and a plan to build 800 residencies at the Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Elysian Park. But they are separated by their supporters and their very different backgrounds.

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Those differences have become fodder for attacks, with O’Farrell calling Choi an outsider because he moved into the district last year and Choi attacking O’Farrell for not having the experience necessary to be a citywide leader.

Theirs has become the most contentious of the four council races on the May 21 ballot, with the candidates accusing each other of homophobia and race-baiting, and their supporters clashing in the streets. Allegations of threats and voter fraud in Little Armenia have prompted investigations by the police and Los Angeles County prosecutors.

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The battle is being waged against a backdrop of uneven campaign fundraising and a torrent of spending by independent groups that don’t have the same limits as candidates.

Choi, who has the support of many in the city’s political establishment, including Villaraigosa, the powerful federation of labor, and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, has raised nearly twice as much as O’Farrell.

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Choi has also benefited from nearly $600,000 in independent spending, nearly all of it from labor unions.

“That’s who he’s going to be accountable to,” O’Farrell insists. He pointed to Choi’s comments in an endorsement meeting with a major city employee union earlier this year as proof.

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In the meeting, Choi told union members they would “be on the inside” if he is elected to the council. “We are going to decide who to open the door for,” he told them.

O’Farrell said he believes city employee costs will have to come down to generate more money for neighborhood services, and said Choi’s comments suggest he would put the interests of the union before those of 13th District residents.

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Choi insists that he will be independent, and said he is ready to launch “a really tough, honest conversation” with labor leaders about whether city employees should pay more for their healthcare costs or possibly forgo salary increases.

He said he is proud of his union endorsements and sick of unions being vilified. “Labor is an important stakeholder that represents a lot of people in this town,” he said.

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Choi, who emigrated from South Korea as a child, would be the second Asian American ever elected to public office in Los Angeles and the first Korean American on the council. He says he is running in part to give voice to what he calls a disenfranchised community. “I think it’s still important to have a City Council that looks like and represents the entire city,” he said.

Raised in Orange County by a dentist father and a mother who was active on the high school PTA, Choi caught the political bug in an urban planning class at college and soon found himself interning on the campaign of Madison Shockley, an African American pastor who was running in the 10th Council District. When the campaign manager suddenly left, Choi stopped going to class and stepped in as his replacement. Shockley lost, but the race’s eventual victor, Martin Ludlow, took on Choi as a volunteer and later hired him to work in his office.

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Ludlow later pleaded guilty to using union workers and union money to help his City Council campaign. Choi was not implicated in the case and says he had no knowledge of Ludlow’s illegal activity.

Choi spent a year in Villaraigosa’s office and then enrolled in law school at UCLA. After graduating, he went to work as the economic development director at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, where he says he helped win local hiring commitments at the Port of Los Angeles and on county building projects. Later, as a public works commissioner appointed by Villaraigosa, Choi voted to approve a controversial labor-backed plan to carve Los Angeles into 11 exclusive commercial trash hauling franchise areas. He stepped down last summer and moved to Echo Park to launch his campaign.

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O’Farrell has lived in Glassell Park since 1992, although he and his partner had to move when their home was cut out of the district in last year’s redistricting process. He says voters have a choice between someone who knows the district and someone who doesn’t.

As a field deputy, district director and eventually senior advisor to Garcetti, O’Farrell says he helped bring new businesses and open community centers and parks. He was Garcetti’s project coordinator for the $65-million restoration of Echo Park Lake, and helped transform a part of Glassell Park that was once controlled by a gang into a community garden. Sitting down to lunch in an Echo Park pizza parlor last month, he waved to a table of police officers he got to know while working for Garcetti.

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O’Farrell grew up in Oklahoma, the son of a Teamster truck driver. O’Farrell says his father’s union affiliation helped lift the family into the middle class. He learned his handspring skills while a gymnast in college. After graduating, he bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actor and a dancer. In those early days, he spent some nights sleeping in his car to save money.

He traveled the world as a dancer on cruise ships for years before returning to Los Angeles. In the 1990s, he found a calling as a volunteer and community activist, organizing neighborhood cleanups and in 1999 helping to found the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council.

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He volunteered for Garcetti’s first council race in 2001, and then took a job in his office.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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