Who will replace 4th District city councilmember LaBonge?

In 2011, running in a three-way primary, Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge won re-election in the first round of voting, earning just 10,629 votes, but that nevertheless represented 54.5 percent of the total turnout.
February 4, 2015

In 2011, running in a three-way primary, Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge won re-election in the first round of voting, earning just 10,629 votes, but that nevertheless represented 54.5 percent of the total turnout. This year, because LaBonge has been termed out of office, the field to replace him in the 4th District City Council seat remains wide open. The names of 14 candidates will be on the March 3 ballot, but none is the clear frontrunner, and a May runoff between the top two appears all but inevitable. With voter turnout expected to be similar to that of four years ago — around 15.4 percent, or a little less than 20,000 votes in the district — this year’s candidates are mostly focused on winning particular constituencies. 

Redrawn since the 2011 election, the new, sprawling 4th District stretches from Miracle Mile, Hancock Park, Hollywood, Silver Lake, Griffith Park, Laurel Canyon and the southern part of Coldwater Canyon Drive to Toluca Lake and Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley. It contains significant Asian-American and Latino-American populations, as well as substantial numbers of Jewish residents on both sides of the Hollywood Hills. 

Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and vice chair of the California Democratic Party, estimated in an interview with the Journal that a candidate might be able to move to the May runoff by garnering as few as 2,500 votes in the March primary. Many of the candidates estimate, rather, that it will take closer to 4,000 votes.

“You can draw up scenarios in which almost any two of them make it to the runoff,” Bauman said. “The voters in the 4th [District] have an embarrassment of riches in the candidates that are in the race. Most of the candidates are very serious candidates — they have good experience, have good records to bring to the table.” 

Bauman also expressed hope that the quality of the field might increase turnout in the same way it has drawn contributions. Six of the candidates have raised more than $100,000: Carolyn Ramsay, LaBonge’s former chief of staff; Steve Veres, Los Angeles district director for California State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León; David Ryu, director of development, government and public affairs at Kedren Community Health Center; Wally Knox, an attorney and former California state assemblyman; Joan Pelico, chief of staff to L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz; and Teddy Davis, who has served in the administrations of two Democratic governors and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. 

Although he lags in fundraising, the school garden activist Tomas O’Grady, who ran against LaBonge in 2011 and received the Los Angeles Times’ endorsement that year, also is considered a serious contender. The Times had not yet endorsed as of the Journal’s press time this week.

For this article, the Journal interviewed all of the candidates who have raised more than $100,000, as well as O’Grady. The remaining candidates include businesswoman and community leader Sheila Irani, public interest advocate Mike Schaefer, community advocate and businessman Jay Beeber, marketing executive Fred Mariscal, association director Tara Bannister, vapor bar owner Step Jones and small-business owner Rostom “Ross” Sarkissian. 

Irrespective of their credentials, the leading candidates “are still struggling to differentiate themselves,” Bauman said. There appears to be general agreement on what the major issues are in the 4th District and in the wider city, with substantial overlap on the solutions the candidates are offering.  

Each candidate interviewed talked about deteriorating streets and sidewalks, also citing a need to coordinate street resurfacing with subsurface infrastructure repairs, such as water pipe replacements, which often can damage recently repaired streets. Each candidate also claimed a personal commitment to fight the “mansionization” problem that is disturbing residential communities across the city, and to responsibly phase out the city’s business gross receipts tax.

Other priorities were similarly popular: Ramsay, Veres, Davis and O’Grady each said that they would call on the city to trim trees more often; Veres, Knox, Davis, Ryu, and O’Grady promised to prioritize reforming the much-maligned Department of Water and Power (DWP); Ramsay, O’Grady, and Davis observed that there is a need for better bike lanes; and Ramsay, Veres, Knox, and O’Grady said they would ease congestion in the hillside Beachwood Canyon neighborhood by developing an alternative method for tourists to view the Hollywood sign. 

Pelico, Veres and O’Grady advocate improving the city’s system for compiling data, and then using that data to better allocate the city’s services and financial resources. Rather than define themselves by these issues, however, the candidates are largely defining themselves by their personalities — as well as by a few symbolic issues. 

Carolyn Ramsay, whom her former boss, LaBonge, has endorsed and who had raised $259,270 as of Jan. 17, is positioning herself as a more “hands-on” version of the city councilman, who is known for his congeniality and his omnipresence at events throughout the city. “Councilman LaBonge and I both have a deep commitment to constituent service and green-space development,” Ramsay said, “but I’m more of a get-down-in-the-trenches-with-people and roll-up-my-sleeves kind of leader.” It was LaBonge who first urged Ramsay to run, she said, and she cemented her decision to pursue the seat when she noted that only one woman sits on the current City Council. 

Ramsay and her family are members of Temple Israel of Hollywood, and she is one of two Jews in the race — the other is Knox. Ramsay presents herself as an environmentally and technologically progressive candidate, in particular emphasizing her plan for a Hollywood Innovation Zone to attract startups to the 4th District. “I’m going to use this innovation zone as a laboratory to figure out what slows businesses down when they are trying to get established in Los Angeles, and to work through those issues,” Ramsay said, adding that she has already spoken with property owners in Hollywood and friends in Silicon Valley. “I have a vast network of relationships within the district, so I have the trust established with folks to actually move forward.”

Joan Pelico, the other already-established City Hall figure running for the seat, is a longtime aide to the 5th District’s councilmembers, formerly Jack Weiss and currently Paul Koretz, for whom she serves as chief of staff. Once a successful businesswoman in the fitness industry, Pelico began her career in public service as president of the parents’ association at Sherman Oaks Elementary School, when her daughter was a student there. Pelico’s vision for the 4th District — a frugal resourcefulness — originated during her time on the association and as a field deputy and district director for the 5th District, when she began assisting fellow constituents in navigating city agencies. “I’ve built strong relationships with city departments in the past 9 1/2 years, and I’m known for getting things done,” said Pelico, praising the Department of Public Works. She says city employees often have said to her: “I can’t do that because the policy says I can’t do that, but I am not a policy maker. I am depending on the councilmembers to create policy, to make and amend ordinances.” Although the city needs to modernize, Pelico said, she believes it already has the resources it needs. “We’ve got 19th-century policy in a 21st-century world,” she said, “but we can’t keep saying we don’t have the resources — not when we do, and we do have the resources.” 

Pelico, who had raised $126,600 as of mid-January, is also making education a priority in her campaign, and, she says, if elected, she will create the position of Education Deputy to work with schools in the 4th District on grant writing, and to help empower parent associations. “I don’t want to change LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District]. They have to take care of themselves. But I do feel a huge responsibility to the schools in my district,” she said.

In contrast to Ramsay and Pelico’s depictions of themselves as established, efficacious leaders within City Hall, Steve Veres paints a portrait of himself as a proven reformer of local institutions who has never worked inside city government.

Veres, who has collected some $242,000 in donations as of last month’s reporting, is currently Los Angeles district director for State Senate President pro Tempore de León and vice president of the Community College District Board of Trustees. “A generation of college board members had moved decision making onto campuses. Decentralization worked for academics, but it was a mess when it came to construction,” Veres said of the board upon his arrival. “I was the main person that got them past that,” he said, taking partial credit for the district’s improved credit rating. “I’m not a very flashy guy. I’m very steady,” he added, saying he is known to work within strict financial limits. “Before I go to voters to approve money, I would be more responsible with its current budget,” Veres said. “Let me show you that I can do everything I can do with what I’ve got.” 

A lifelong resident of Los Angeles, he has sat on numerous public boards across the Southland and has lived most of his adult life in the San Fernando Valley. He is the only candidate to receive support from the local Democratic Party.

The most familiar candidate in the race is Wally Knox, also a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, an attorney and former state legislator who served as a trustee of the Community College District and, more recently, on the board of the Department of Water and Power. Knox’s wife, Beth Garfield, ran for the same City Council seat in 2001, ultimately losing to LaBonge in a runoff. Knox is widely respected for his achievements in the California Assembly in the ’90s, including significant gun control and environmental protection legislation, as well as a law to aid Holocaust survivors in recovering insurance policy payments denied by European firms (which was later found to be unconstitutional). 

For this return to public life, Knox has refashioned himself as a realist with the record to indicate he could improve city services. “I had not planned on running for this seat,” he said, “but I think the problems facing Los Angeles are so significant that it is going to take a level of leadership that I didn’t see among the folks running.”

Knox, who has raised $197,000, is emphasizing the issue of development, insisting that the city needs a stricter, more specific legal framework that does not allow for widespread exemptions. “Right now, we have 15 barons with their 15 fiefdoms,” Knox said. “Homeowners have no way of knowing what’s coming next, and developers are dependent on the good will of individual councilmembers. I would want to restrict my own power.”   

Two younger candidates, Davis and Ryu, have staked out distinct images as well — Davis as a resolute, representative voice of the 4th District’s community, and Ryu as the bearer of a hopeful yet practical worldview instilled by Korean immigrant parents. 

Although only 36, Teddy Davis worked as an aide to Gray Davis’ 1998 gubernatorial campaign, as an advisor to Gov. Davis, as a political adviser to ABC News, as a spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union, as a spokesperson for former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as a communications adviser to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and currently is a public service fellow at USC. Using an aggressive door-to-door effort, Davis is portraying himself as a candidate who represents the people. “I grew up in Los Feliz, and I went to school in Sherman Oaks. I know this district,” he said, promising a “back-to-basics” agenda not unlike the one on which L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ran in 2013.

Much of the press Davis has received so far has been the result of two transparency pledges — to post his interest group questionnaires online, and not to accept money from developers. “If you are taking money from one side, you are not an honest broker,” he said. However, when Davis made the latter pledge early on, his campaign already had accepted money from developers, something that O’Grady and others repeatedly have pointed out. Davis’ campaign then returned about $7,000 in contributions, a fairly significant sum at a time when it had yet to reach the $100,000 mark. As of Jan. 17, he had raised $115,700.

David Ryu, a Korean-born American community health executive in South Los Angeles and previously a deputy to then-Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, is portraying himself as “an independent voice” who understands how local government affects people’s lives. “I believe in government,” Ryu said. “I know that government is kind of broken right now, but I believe we can fix it. And how do we fix it? One person at a time. One vote at a time.” Although Ryu’s campaign organized a voter registration drive with The Korea Times, specifically targeting the thousands of unregistered Korean-Americans in the 4th District, he is personally emphasizing a broader message: “My story is not unique. It’s the American story,” he said. 

Asked to name a priority he is uniquely suited to effectively implement, Ryu cited combating homelessness. He believes his relationships in the nonprofit arena, as well as with L.A. County government — which allocates most of the local public money directed toward homelessness — would allow him to work toward straightforward, short-term goals while developing a more extensive, long-term solution. “I’ve been doing it,” Ryu asserted. “I’ve done it in a government office, and I’ve done it in the nonprofit community.” Ryu had raised $313,700 through Jan. 17, more than any other candidate, and, if elected, he would be only the second Asian-American ever to sit on the City Council.

The outlier in the race is Tomas O’Grady, an Irish-born community activist who founded EnrichLA, a nonprofit that builds edible gardens in public schools around the city. Earlier in his career, O’Grady restored and sold residential real estate in now-thriving Hoboken, N.J. According to EnrichLA’s website, he set a goal with his wife “to be retired by age 30.” O’Grady’s run against LaBonge in 2011 won him an impressive 31 percent of the vote, and he has constructed his second campaign around an extensive door-to-door operation, introducing residents to his contrarian attitude. “I want to disrupt, to fix these bureaucracies,” O’Grady said. 

As a credential for leadership, he touts his success at working with the bureaucracy of LAUSD in building gardens in public schools, and he has been appealing to voters upset with government inefficiencies and misspending. “I’m trying to bring that same attitude to City Hall — blunt-spoken.” O’Grady, who had raised just $58,385 as of the last reporting deadline, says he wants to “streamline” government services and reform the bureaucratic aspects of city departments to make them more nimble, even if that requires contracting city jobs or relying more heavily on volunteers. “I can deliver a more efficient city,” he said.

What has become clear with this race most of all is that the unusual geographic outline of the new 4th District is precisely what has contributed to the large quantity of candidates. Summing up the race, Democratic Party leader Bauman said, “You have these districts that are composed of very different pieces that get put together, so you get this unusual outpouring of candidates that run.”

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