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Candidates start lining up to fill seat vacated by only Republican on L.A. City Council

Candidates start lining up to fill seat vacated by only Republican on L.A. City Council
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander sits in council chambers at City Hall in early December, a few weeks before his departure from the council. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Days after Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander stepped down to take a job with a sports and entertainment firm, more than a dozen candidates are lining up to fill the vacant seat.

As of the middle of this week, only a handful had actually filed paperwork with the city to raise money for a special election in June, with a likely runoff in August. But more than a dozen candidates say they plan to run — and even more are likely to emerge in the coming weeks.

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The winner will finish out Englander’s term and face another election in 2020.

He or she will represent the northwestern San Fernando Valley, including the neighborhoods of Chatsworth, Granada Hills and Porter Ranch. The area is more politically conservative and suburban than much of Los Angeles and has long been represented by Republicans.

Yet many Democratic candidates — including a number of political newcomers — are making a play for the seat. Larry Levine, a political consultant who is not representing candidates in the race, said Democrats might be energized by recent victories in Orange County and other areas long seen as conservative strongholds.

“If I’m a Democrat in a district that always elects Republicans, I may say, ‘Well, what the hell? Look what’s going on,’” he said.

So far, potential candidates include Englander’s former chief of staff, John Lee; former Ethics Commission President Serena Oberstein; attorney and airport Commissioner Jeff Daar; Cal State Northridge sustainability instructor Loraine Lundquist; and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman’s district director, Scott Abrams.

Many who have expressed an interest are relative newcomers to politics, including Josh Yeager, a Chatsworth resident who works for a public affairs firm; Jack Kayajian, an outreach specialist with the city attorney’s office; tech startup founder Brandii R. Grace; and Michael Benedetto and Carlos Amador, both Granada Hills South Neighborhood Council members.

Some likely candidates have run for or served in elected office in L.A. or other cities, including Jay Beeber, who previously ran to represent a council district spanning Sherman Oaks to Miracle Mile, and Frank Ferry, an attorney who served on the Santa Clarita City Council.

Ben Pak, who unsuccessfully ran for the state Board of Equalization and was a field deputy for former state Sen. Kevin de León, said he also is considering a run. Brandon Saario, who recently lost a primary election bid to state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, said he is running. And David Balen said he plans to run again after he lost as a write-in candidate against Englander four years ago.

As of midweek, only Amador, Ferry, Lundquist, Oberstein, Yeager and another candidate named Annie Cho had filed paperwork with the City Ethics Commission to raise money for the June special election — an initial step that more candidates are likely to take as the race heats up.

Lee, a Republican, is widely seen as the front-runner because serving as chief of staff has been a common path to the council. Englander himself was the top aide to his predecessor, Greig Smith, who held the same job for his predecessor, Hal Bernson. Oberstein and several other competitors argue, however, that the city needs to break with that “political dynasty.”

“It’s time to bring someone in who hasn’t spent a decade with the business-as-usual politics of City Hall,” Oberstein said.

Lee’s history with City Hall also could spur questions over a lawsuit from a former Englander aide, who claimed Lee harassed her at work. Los Angeles ultimately agreed to pay $75,000 to settle the claims against the city. Lee, reached for comment this week, emphasized his support from female leaders and said “the baseless lawsuit against me was dismissed with prejudice.”

Many of the hopefuls are Democrats, which could leave the Los Angeles City Council without a Republican voice. Englander had long been the lone Republican on the council.

(Los Angeles Times)

Republicans have been declining in the council district, falling from 37% to 24% of registered voters between 2000 and 2019, according to figures from the county registrar. During that time, the share of Democrats has remained steady — about 44% of registered voters — and the percentage of voters registered with no party preference has grown.

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But Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said “the real debate at City Hall is about land use” and real estate development — and those decisions do not neatly follow partisan lines. Several candidates said political affiliation is not crucial to the nonpartisan race.

Political “parties are irrelevant, especially at this level,” said Benedetto, a Democrat and president of the Granada Hills Chamber of Commerce. “It’s about community and doing what’s right.”

Lee said he would be more concerned if “someone was on the council who couldn’t deliver for Council District 12” than whether or not the council has a Republican.

“There isn’t a liberal or conservative way to fund police or fill potholes,” he said.

Candidates from the left, right and in between have cited bread-and-butter issues such as street repairs and crime rates, as well as the homelessness crisis. Several also mentioned the Aliso Canyon methane disaster, which displaced thousands of people in Porter Ranch, as a key issue.

“This was a case where I saw the impact of fossil fuels right in my backyard, impacting my community and my neighbors and their health,” said Lundquist, who cited climate change as her top issue. Lundquist said she was deeply frustrated that years later, the city did not have adequate analyses or a “credible emergency plan.”

Sonenshein called the council “one of the most desirable seats in California government,” with an annual salary of over $200,000 and “immense power” in the sprawling city.

Yet Levine said the race will likely have paltry turnout, since it is at a time of year when voters are not used to heading to the polls, and nothing else will be on the ballot. That, in turn, will leave more power with the most reliable voters — the “neighborhood activist type,” he said.

“They’re watching everything under a microscope,” Levine said. “And they tend to be more negative about City Hall.”

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