A San Fernando Valley runoff pits a scientist against a former City Hall aide

John Lee, left, will face Loraine Lundquist in a runoff.
(Los Angeles Times)

He is a Republican with the kind of City Hall pedigree that has long been a path to winning this seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

She is a Democrat with an unconventional political resume: an astrophysicist who turned her focus to climate change.

John Lee and Loraine Lundquist, the two candidates who rose to the top Tuesday in the crowded race to represent an L.A. council district that includes Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills, are headed for an August runoff that reflects the political patchwork of those suburban stretches of the northwest San Fernando Valley.

Lee had long been seen as a front-runner: He worked as the top aide to the last councilman, Mitchell Englander, which was the same path that Englander and the councilman before him took to the seat. He was also the biggest fundraiser in the race, according to the last available reports.

At candidate forums and on mailers that pictured him grinning alongside local leaders, Lee touted his long experience and endorsements in the district. IBEW Local 18 — the union that represents Department of Water and Power workers — promoted him as a “problem solver” through an independent committee that spent tens of thousands of dollars.


Lee has “a concrete record of doing things on the issues that the district cares about — homelessness, public safety, neighborhood services,” said Pat Dennis, senior strategist for Lee’s campaign.

Lundquist, in turn, generated buzz among left-leaning activists eager to flip a district long represented by Republicans.

Some other Democrats in the race outspent her — most notably Scott Abrams, the district director for U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman — but she benefited from independent spending by environmental groups and broke away from the rest of the pack with coveted endorsements and her unique billing as a scientist, educator and mom.

“Being a scientist establishes intellectual credentials and separated her from more typical politicians. … And ‘mom’ differentiates her from an overwhelmingly male field in the MeToo era,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University.

One of her mailers unfolded to reveal a stylized drawing of a tree and the slogan: “They Tried to Bury Us. They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds.” Another depicted her as a comic-book superhero.

Lundquist campaign consultant Calvin Abbasi said their campaign materials were “inevitably going to look different because the approach is different.” Even her yard signs were distinctive: pieces of cardboard that had been imprinted with her campaign logo and painted by volunteers.

Lee, in turn, tailored his crisp red-and-blue mailers to different neighborhoods, featuring local residents and business owners from each area. For instance, in North Hills, residents Elena and Carlos Pelaez were pictured with their dog and the words, “John Lee delivered more police patrols to stop crime in our neighborhood.”

“I thought it was really important that we get specific messages out to those communities to let them know not only what I’ve done, but what I plan on doing,” Lee said Wednesday.

The question now is how voters who opted for someone other than Lee or Lundquist will shake out in the August runoff. Although the council race is nonpartisan, election watchers are closely eyeing how much of the vote went to Democratic candidates versus Republicans.

Lundquist “tapped into the desire for change” among progressive activists who were frustrated after President Trump was elected, said political consultant Samantha Stevens, who didn’t represent anyone in the race. “The traditional voters went with John Lee, who was a very traditional candidate in that district.”

Some candidates who grabbed a significant share of the vote despite modest or even minimal fundraising were not aligned with any political party, including Jay Beeber, who heads the advocacy group Safer Streets L.A., and LAPD senior lead officer Sean Dinse, who raised less money than anyone else in the race, according to the last available reports.

Both campaigned on concerns about how the city has managed the homelessness crisis, arguing that it needs to focus more on mental illness and drug addiction.

“I think people are completely fed up with the status quo,” Beeber said Wednesday. “But I don’t know that either candidate” — Lee or Lundquist — “fills that hunger.”

Lee had faced the bulk of campaign attacks so far as the assumed front-runner, including mailers targeting him as a “career staffer” who has faced harassment allegations. Lundquist, in turn, was at one point targeted by Republican candidate Frank Ferry as a “far out scientist” with liberal positions.

The August runoff is likely to have lower turnout than the June election, which was on the same ballot as Measure EE, a parcel tax to support Los Angeles Unified schools. (Turnout in the district for the Tuesday election exceeded 20%, with ballots still being counted.) Schnur said that could be an obstacle for Lundquist, because lower turnout tends to favor older, more conservative voters.

“You couldn’t create the circumstances for a lower turnout election in a laboratory,” Schnur said.

For Lee, the challenge will be separating himself from the frustrations that many voters have about City Hall, where he worked for years before leaving to become a consultant, even as he plays up his district experience. Lundquist said Wednesday that “people are ready for a change from the political dynasty that we’ve had in this district for so long.”

Lee, asked how he responds to being billed as an insider, said he shares in the frustration with City Hall.

“I don’t see myself as being any different than the people who have expressed that,” he said.

Twitter: @AlpertReyes