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Ramsay, Ryu Get Down to Specifics in District 4 Race

The race to fill Tom LaBonge’s seat in the 4th District of the Los Angeles City Council has become increasingly heated in recent weeks as the two candidates, Carolyn Ramsay and David Ryu, seek to clarify their positions on specific policies and projects and to respond to critics of past projects.
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May 8, 2015

The race to fill Tom LaBonge’s seat in the 4th District of the Los Angeles City Council has become increasingly heated in recent weeks as the two candidates, Carolyn Ramsay and David Ryu, seek to clarify their positions on specific policies and projects and to respond to critics of past projects.

“I think the candidates have changed because they realize that the voters do not want generalizations. The public wants answers to tough questions,” said Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association President Richard Close, who has not endorsed either candidate. “The candidates can no longer say, ‘I’m going to put your interests first. I realize there is too much development.’ They are being asked to take positions on specific questions and make commitments to the community.”

The homeowners association, for example, asked each candidate to sign 12 pledges covering issues from pensions for city workers, street maintenance, city budgets and the creation of a city office of transparency to limitations on numerous development projects. Ramsay signed all 12; Ryu signed all but two — he held off on promising he would require the city to fully fund its two pension plans with no additional tax increase, and he did not agree to require the city to repair and maintain all streets and sidewalks using the general fund without a tax increase.

The runoff on May 19 features only this one race and is expected to draw a dismally low turnout, increasing the value of each vote. The fight for endorsements has been heated, with Ramsay receiving the lion’s share. She has received endorsements from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the County Federation of Labor and nine of the 15 current councilmembers. Tomas O’Grady, who finished third in the March general election, also endorsed Ramsay. Ryu’s prominent endorsements include the Los Angeles County and California Democratic parties, former Congressman Howard Berman, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, California Treasurer John Chiang, State Sen. Holly Mitchell and a number of local unions. Both candidates received a “support” vote from Democrats for Israel.

The candidates are striving, however, to lay out specific plans that might appeal to each potential voter they encounter.

At a recent postcard-writing event for her campaign, Ramsay told the Journal that the issue she hears most about from residents is traffic on city streets, and she listed a half-dozen intersections of particular concern to her: Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards, among them, as well as Los Feliz Boulevard at the I-5 interchange.

At one point, having heard Ramsay was in the neighborhood writing postcards, a local resident arrived hoping to discuss a particular project. Ramsay left the table of volunteers to listen and take notes.

“I just want to hit the ground running on July 1,” Ramsay told a reporter afterward.

Asked by a reporter what campaign promise exemplifies her most, Ramsay touted her plan for a Hollywood Innovation Zone in an underused industrial area, where tech and entertainment can come together to create new jobs. “I really see myself as a problem solver,” she said.

In recent debates, Ramsay has sought to demonstrate her experience through specific accomplishments from her time in City Hall, including helping acquire land to expand Griffith Park. She has also underlined that most of her campaign money has come from within and nearby District 4.

Tom Capps, a member of the Sherman Oaks neighborhood council, said he was initially opposed to the redistricting effort that moved his neighborhood into District 4, but Ramsay and LaBonge have turned him around. “I was proven dismally wrong. We had Wendy Greuel and Paul Krekorian, and Tom [LaBonge] and Carolyn [Ramsay] did more for us, I think, than they did.”

Although Ryu early on faced criticism for speaking in generalities (highlighted by a Daily News editorial), he, too, has sought to stake out his positions and to combat the charge that his lack of experience in City Hall leaves him with a steep learning curve.

“He has done much better,” Sherman Oaks resident Close said. “His advantage is that he is not burdened by past decisions. The disadvantage for him is that people want to know, ‘What’s your position on this issue?’ And they are not going to accept platitudes, generalities. They demand specifics, and he was slow in coming up with specifics, though he is doing so now more than earlier.”

In an email, Close added that although Ryu says he will be more critical than Ramsay of proposed developments, he has been “less willing to take actual positions on specific projects.”

However, Ryu’s alleged ambiguity might work to his benefit, as some residents worry that a one-size-fits-all approach could be harmful in a district that spans from Hancock Park at the south, to Sherman Oaks at the northwest and Silver Lake at the east.

Mara Cohen-Marks, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and a resident of the Larchmont Village-Hancock Park area, said that, among her neighbors, Ramsay has appealed most to homeowners incensed about growth. Cohen-Marks said she supported Sheila Irani in the general election, and she has not yet selected which candidate she’ll vote for in the runoff. But when it comes to mansionization and development, “Ryu might be more open to a variety of different responses,” Cohen-Marks said.

Widely viewed as the institutional underdog, Ryu recently brought the issue of a lack of transparency at City Hall to the forefront of the race — pointing to critics’ claims that LaBonge mismanaged his office’s discretionary funds and is often too quick to support new developments. Ramsay served as LaBonge’s chief of staff until April 2014. 

Ryu announced last month that, if elected, he would establish a “CD4 Discretionary Funds Task Force” staffed by constituents to manage the controversial reserves to which each councilmember has access. He also directed his campaign to return money it had received from developers and pledged not to accept any donations from developers during his run or once he takes office.

“The best way to restore public confidence is to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. People want to know that projects will be judged solely on their merits and their impact on the community — not by which developer has the deepest pockets,” Ryu said in a statement making the announcement. The Ramsay campaign called Ryu’s pledges a “political stunt.”

Ryu’s campaign was given multiple requests over many weeks for the Journal to directly interview the candidate, but the campaign was unable to make him available.

While Ramsay often touts her experience working in City Hall, she has struggled to respond to criticism of particular projects she worked on while running LaBonge’s office.

“Carolyn is burdened [by] and benefited from past decisions when she was chief of staff for LaBonge,” Close said.

In 2011, for example, during a period of contention over access to the Hollywood sign, some Hollywood Hills residents were angered when LaBonge and his staff cleared brush from a lookout in Griffith Park used to view the monument. The issue of how to regulate thousands of tourists driving through residential neighborhoods to access the sign remains unresolved and has been a topic in numerous candidate debates over the past six months.

In the past month, LaBonge has come under fire for his office’s use of discretionary funds to stage events his critics view as frivolous.  In 2013, for example, while Ramsay was his chief of staff, LaBonge authorized $100,000 to string holiday lights around the Los Angeles Zoo. In addition, an analysis by the Los Feliz Ledger found that between 2006 and 2014, LaBonge authorized transfers totaling $1.3 million from discretionary funds to his office accounts to pay for added staff salaries. Ramsay was his chief of staff for all but two years during that period. Ramsay has promised to be transparent with her discretionary fund if she is elected.

Yet, aside from a few specific issues, Close said that, in general, “People think that LaBonge cares about community. … So, to that extent, he has a positive image” that may help Ramsay.

Regardless of the theatrics of the race, the two candidates’ stands on issues do not differ greatly.

“I think both of them are probably going to end up pursuing similar policies ultimately,” Cohen-Marks said.

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