Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, a San Pedro native son and reserve police officer, is practically a shoo-in to win reelection Tuesday. He lacks substantial opposition and is known as a hometown darling.
Yet Buscaino has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on his reelection bid, hired consultants who worked on the presidential campaigns of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and is appearing in television ads across the city.
The consultants and advertising are aimed at passing an obscure ballot measure related to waterfront development in the Port of Los Angeles, a driving force in Buscaino's 15th City Council District.
All the effort, political observers say, might be a sign that Buscaino is trying to raise his profile to possibly run for higher office or to mine a special set of circumstances that could allow him to serve on the City Council for 15 years, a tenure unprecedented in the modern era of term limits.
"This certainly looks like a little bit of an upward mobility play," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "For everyone in Los Angeles politics, the next few years could become target-rich opportunities."
The biggest question is whether Mayor Eric Garcetti will run for governor or U.S. Senate in 2018, creating a vacancy in the mayor's office.
Becoming popular enough to mount a successful citywide campaign is a challenge for all local politicians, but it is especially so for those in Buscaino's district, which includes San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and Watts.
Few have been able to do it aside from the late Kenneth Hahn, who served on the county Board of Supervisors for 40 years, and his children, former Mayor James Hahn and Supervisor Janice Hahn, a former congresswoman.
"It's a district where, if you want to get known to a wider city electorate, you have to work for it," Sonenshein said. "Unless your last name is Hahn."
Buscaino said he remains focused on his district, notably efforts to revitalize its aging waterfront, build housing and persuade businesses to locate there. He also left himself an opening.
"You have to be ready for anything that comes your way," Buscaino said. "But my main goal is getting reelected on March 7."
While virtually unknown in most of the city, he is a favorite son in San Pedro — the power base of his district and a close-knit coastal enclave that is geographically and culturally removed from the rest of the city. The port is the lifeblood of the community of nearly 80,000 residents, including many Italians, Croatians and Latinos.
Buscaino, 42, is a first-generation Italian American whose parents immigrated to San Pedro to work in the fishing industry. He served as senior class president at San Pedro High School before joining the Los Angeles Police Department. Voters around town who profess to know little about the city's elections immediately recognize his name.
"He went to high school with my brother," said Andrea Mungaray, 46.
She said she approved of the job Buscaino has done, especially the redevelopment of the waterfront. Last year, the City Council approved a $150-million plan to turn a 30-acre area into the San Pedro Public Market, complete with eateries, office space, a Ferris wheel and other amenities.
"I would like to see a waterfront like in San Francisco, something like that where people are going to go," Mungaray said.
Buscaino helped place Measure P on Tuesday's ballot and appears in citywide television ads promoting it. The measure is designed to encourage waterfront redevelopment by allowing builders to obtain 66-year leases of port property instead of the current 50-year limit.
The $200,000 being spent on the Measure P ads is separate from the $270,000 Buscaino has spent on his reelection, with large outlays for polling, mailers and campaign consultants.
Developing the waterfront and other parts of the district is a top priority, Buscaino said.
"Oftentimes I feel like I'm playing real estate agent because I'm in the car with developers showing and showcasing opportunities," he said.
Buscaino's relationship with developers, however, has created his greatest vulnerability. A Times investigation in October found that the councilman was among several Los Angeles-area politicians who collectively received more than $600,000 in campaign donations from contributors with direct or indirect ties to Samuel Leung, a Torrance-based developer.
Leung had been lobbying public officials to approve a $72-million apartment complex in the 15th District. Buscaino, who received $94,700 of the donations, supported a zoning change to accommodate the project despite neighborhood opposition.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has opened a review, and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating the donations. Some of the donors say they knew nothing about the contributions.
Buscaino said he supports the investigation, but defended his support for the 352-unit Sea Breeze project.
"I am thirsting for development. I'm thirsting for housing. I'm thirsting for investment to come into my district," Buscaino said. "Any doubt I'm doing it for the purpose of campaign contributions – it's not right."
One of his rivals, Caney Arnold, has called on Buscaino to return the donations. But neither Arnold, a former Defense Department employee, nor Buscaino's other competitor, music industry executive Noel Gould, have the resources to turn Sea Breeze into an obstacle for Buscaino's reelection.
Arnold, who also faults Buscaino's approach to homelessness and environmental justice, is optimistic that social media can make up for his lack of campaign funding.
"I don't think money is going to be as big in politics at the local level as it used to be," Arnold said.
While in office, Buscaino has avoided an issue that has dogged others who have represented the 15th District: being accused of focusing on San Pedro at the expense of the rest of the district.
In Watts, Buscaino has vocally advocated for the makeover of Jordan Downs, a dilapidated World War II-era public housing project. Though he is viewed in some City Hall quarters as a puppet of Garcetti, Buscaino called out the mayor in 2015 for an error that resulted in the project not qualifying for federal housing money.
Perry Crouch, a gang interventionist whose family moved to Watts shortly before the riots in 1965, said many council members who represented the area ignored the neighborhood.
"Joe's been working hand in hand with us," Crouch said.
One of Buscaino's most vocal critics is James Preston Allen, publisher of San Pedro's Random Lengths News. He described the incumbent's record as "mediocre."
Allen said Buscaino is a self-promoter who has failed to adequately address the area's homelessness. He also called the councilman's beliefs about waterfront development "delusions."
Still, Allen does not believe that Buscaino, who won his 2013 election with 83% of the vote, can be stopped.
"He is vulnerable," Allen said. "The question is whether there is anybody currently signed up to run against him that can convince the rest of the community that he should go."