One theme stands out in the 2011 Los Angeles City Council races: There's a sentiment to throw the bums out but only a couple of serious challengers to any of the "bums."
So it looks like the new City Council that emerges after the March 8 election, where all seven of the even-numbered districts — 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 — are on the ballot, is going to look a lot like the old.
One possible upset: The Eastside's District 14 (see the Weekly's "Jose Huizar Unfriends Rudy Martinez," Jan. 21), where Rudy Martinez has a chance to beat Jose Huizar.
Another race showing some fire is in Council District 4, a gerrymandered district that stretches from struggling, "redeveloped" North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, over the mountains surrounding Griffith Park, and south to the glitz of the Grove.
Although District 4 incumbent Tom LaBonge is a consummate glad-hander, he's turned off activists fed up with his consistently unanimous votes along with the 14 other council members. LaBonge faces the idea-driven and outspoken reform proponent Stephen Box and small businessman Tomas O'Grady.
Beyond that, there's one wide-open race, in the San Fernando Valley's District 12, where incumbent Greig Smith is leaving early. So only in District 12 is a new face guaranteed.
It's been this monotonous way since 1987. That's the last time a member of the City Council club had their chair pulled out from under them by an outsider. That year, slow-growth upstart Ruth Galanter beat entrenched developers' pal Pat Russell.
A serious challenger who wants to change that calculus, but whose victory would be only a blip in the big picture, is a reality star spending $150,000 of his own money. Martinez, of Flip This House, wants to boot Villaraigosa crony Huizar out of the 14th District.
Martinez wants it bad.
And he's getting unintended help from Huizar, who came under fire for hiring staff with a rich pot of money meant for Eastside neighborhood amenities, and for keeping a Nixonian frenemies list oozing with embarrassing detail.
In the rest of the races, the incumbents ride in easily on name recognition. L.A. residents have heard how the City Council has botched everything from the medical marijuana law to illegal billboards to DWP rate hikes, but few are disgusted enough to vote.
Yet on Wednesday, the Pew Charitable Trusts released its survey of 15 of the biggest cities in the United States, revealing that the L.A. City Council lavishes more money on its personal staffs and personal offices — $1.7 million each — than New York's, Chicago's or any other major city's. Moreover, Pew found, amidst the recession, that L.A. is one of only three major cities left whose council members still insist taxpayers pay for their cars.
But few voters have heard of Augusto Bisani, Rich Goodman, Jabari S. Jumaane, Austin Dragon, Chris Brown, Luis Montoya, David Barron, Jamie Cardaro, Andy Kim or O'Grady — all challengers to the incumbents.
The only challengers who appear to have name recognition in their districts are Martinez, Box and Althea Rae Shaw, the aunt of slain high school football star Jamiel Shaw. Shaw is targeting the seat of incumbent City Councilman Herb Wesson Jr. and has gained national attention over the family's battle to persuade City Hall to crack down on illegal immigrant criminals such as Pedro Espinoza, the known 18th Street gang member charged with murdering her nephew in 2008.
Former KCET commentator Kerman Maddox says that after the decision by voters to discard the old for the new nationwide in November, Los Angeles challengers to the sitting City Council are following suit.
"You can't get rid of a city manager, so you do the next best thing and try and get rid of incumbents," Maddox says.
Here's a rundown on the seats in play:
District 2: City Councilman Paul Krekorian won a special election in 2009. Apparently, he feels so confident that he refused to answer any questions posed by a Weekly reporter at a City Council meeting. In recent days he promised an interview, but the appointment didn't materialize, despite many calls and e-mails.
Krekorian, who job-jumped from state Assembly in Sacramento to move inside L.A.'s city limits and run for City Council, promised to be a different kind of politician. That never really materialized.
He's being challenged by businessman Augusto Bisani, who has little name recognition. But winning seems secondary to Bisani, who's intent on lobbing charges that the exceedingly clubby atmosphere of the City Council — 15 people who rarely display dissenting views and vote unanimously 99.993 percent of the time — breeds corruption.
District 4: See L.A. Weekly's upcoming Feb. 10 cover story on Stephen Box's quest.
District 6: Councilman Tony Cardenas has three challengers, but it's going to be tough for Barron, Goodman or Cardaro to force him into a runoff.
Too bad, because one of the would-be pols, Barron, says, "I would look forward to telling the wealthy developers, union leaders and special-interest groups to take a number, and go to the back of the line, because the public and small businesses are being served first!"
His message is being heard by some, but it's faint.
In the blogosphere, Cardenas is getting pummeled with a vengeance by former mayoral candidate Walter Moore of WalterMooreSays.com, who charges Cardenas is part of the city's "cronyocracy."
Cardenas has drawn fire for handing public money to his sister. Her Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore in Sylmar has received $114,500 in city contracts to put on Latino cultural events that not many people attended, according to Moore.
In 2009, Tia Chucha's received $50,000 to "present lowrider cars from L.A. ... at the Expo Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico" in the midst of major budget cuts to core city services.
Cardenas dismisses critics, saying his sister "doesn't get paid a penny."
With a huge looming deficit (City Hall is currently overspending by $3,424 per hour), there's been talk of leasing city parking for 50 years — essentially a sale — to cover the shortfall.
Cardenas is no fan of that, apparently not trusting his 14 colleagues to use the new cash to pay down debt: "Chicago did the same thing and received a billion dollars and spent it all." He says furlough days have helped save "tens of millions of dollars" and wants employees to take a cut in perks.
Well, not really a cut at all. Cardenas proposes things like raising the tiny health insurance co-pays of city workers.
District 8: Former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, the incumbent, was dealt a blow when the Los Angeles Federation of Labor decided to endorse Forescee Hogan-Rowles, who runs the nonprofit Community Financial Resource Center in South L.A. Firefighter Jabari S. Jumaane also is challenging Parks.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 and the Service Employees International Union Local 721 are behind Hogan-Rowles. That means her candidacy gets cash as well as volunteer foot soldiers to get out the vote. Hogan-Rowles had a five-year record of repeatedly approving DWP rate increases when she was on the DWP board.
She's expected to be tight with controversial IBEW union chief Brian D'Arcy, whom Parks — unlike City Council members who fret over being targeted for replacement by D'Arcy's union — openly criticizes.
But Parks now is getting political payback for questioning D'Arcy. His greatest sin? Last fall, he suggested the City Council should maintain more control over pension benefits for employees at the DWP. He backed off when D'Arcy loudly protested.
But still, he'd crossed D'Arcy.
"We didn't expect an endorsement from the unions. We never got one from the [American] Federation of Labor before," Parks says. "And I'd rather work for the 4 million people in the city and in my district as opposed to the 30,000 employees who work for the unions."
District 10: Former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson Jr., whose speakership was seen as weak and even disengaged, is running for his final term. In addition to Althea Rae Shaw, Wesson's challengers are attorney Andrew "Andy" Kim, businessman Austin Dragon, small business owner Luis Montoya and business owner Chris Brown.
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Despite the opposition, Wesson isn't stepping up his campaign. He's relying on themes he used four years ago: "I wouldn't say [City Council members] are pro-development," Wesson says. "I would say we are pro–smart development."
District 12: Watch for an upcoming Weekly story.
With so few contenders with enough cash to take on the City Council, there's one thing L.A. voters can expect from most races on March 8: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.