There is no City Council district in Los Angeles facing a steeper uphill climb than the 9th in South Los Angeles. Running from just below I-10 south to East 95th Street and straddling the Harbor Freeway, the key-shaped district includes all or part of the Historic South Central, South Park, Florence, University Park, Exposition Park and Vermont-Slauson neighborhoods. That stretch is home to the city's poorest and least educated residents, as well as the largest (and growing) inland homeless population.
But there are signs of life and hope in CD9. Employment, business income and construction are all growing, although much of that improvement is coming from two islands of wealth: the sliver of downtown L.A. that's in the district, and the University of Southern California. Exposition Park alone will see a series of huge construction projects in the coming years, and the rest of the district is attracting increasing interest because it's one of the last places with low-cost underdeveloped land.
So in addition to the challenges posed by entrenched poverty, whoever holds this seat for the coming (and unusually lengthy) term will also have to grapple with increasing pressure from developers. That's a good problem to have in an area starved for investment, but it's a problem nonetheless because of the threat that rising property values will drive low-income renters and small businesses out of one of the few areas where they can afford to pay the market rate.
After a decades-long influx, Latino immigrants and their descendants make up about 80% of the 9th's inhabitants, although a considerably smaller percentage of its registered voters. Two of the district's three City Council candidates this year are children of immigrants: Jorge Nuño, a graphic designer, and Adriana Cabrera, a community activist and graduate student. The third is first-term incumbent Curren Price, the latest in a line of African American representatives that stretches back 55 years.
There's more than a whiff of identity politics at work in the CD9 contest, just as there was four years ago when Price defeated Ana Cubas in the runoff. But unlike Price and Cubas, who were relatively new arrivals when they ran for the council seat, both Nuño and Cabrera were raised in the 9th District and have spent most of their lives there.
The genial Price, 66, is chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee, where he has helped steer measures to raise the minimum wage, reduce employment discrimination against ex-offenders and legalize street vending. Those efforts haven't brought employers to or created jobs in his district, however. Rather than any of Price's initiatives, the main sources of job growth have been the developers who've built projects in the 9th.
Price touts the agreements he has negotiated with developers to require them to hire and invest in the district in exchange for getting their projects approved. This issue, however, is the greatest point of tension between Price and his detractors, who complain that he hasn't demanded enough housing that local residents can afford or funneled enough of the promised investment to truly local grass-roots organizations. Whatever you think of Price's priorities, there's been a clear breakdown between the councilman and many of the community organizations trying to serve his constituents.
The risk in reelecting Price is that new developments will become islands of prosperity disconnected (or worse, walled off) from the neighborhoods around them, and that the community benefits extracted from developers will reach too few of his constituents.
Nuño, 40, offers a chance to rebuild the bridges between the council office and grass-roots groups while seeking a better bargain with developers. A political novice, Nuño turned his home — a mansion known as "the Big House" — into a combination community center and incubator for small businesses and non-profits. His inexperience in government is an issue, but that's offset by his energy, resourcefulness and strong connections to grass-roots groups. His work on behalf of his community in areas such as public education, public safety and entrepreneurship has been on a limited scale, but he's undeniably been a force for positive change.
The 24-year-old Cabrera, whose long resume of activism belies her age, is bright and has some experience in government, having served on the Central Alameda Neighborhood Council and interned in congressional and legislative offices. But she seems so focused on blocking gentrification that she could deny the district the capital it desperately needs.
Price's experience may appeal to voters looking for a safe choice in CD9. But Nuño's entrepreneurial drive and connections to the grass roots make him the better choice.