Silver Lake activist Diane Edwardson is wary. She has lived in L.A. City Council District 13, which includes Hollywood, East Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Atwater Village and Glassell Park, for 26 years. There's something about this chunk of L.A. that attracts a huge field of candidates, including many who move there just to try for the high-paying seat — $178,789 per year — on the L.A. City Council.
This year, 23 people hoped to run in the March 5 primary. Twelve of them — more than half of whom recently moved into the area — got organized enough to collect the voter signatures to qualify.
"It seems like we're everyone's starting ground for politics," Edwardson says. "Rather than having someone who's from the neighborhood — and for the neighborhood."
Christine Peters, president of Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, who's lived in Echo Park 22 years, comments: "It's quite interesting how all these individuals we've never met before want to represent us. ... People have political ambitions and want to climb the political ladder."
Community activist Ziggy Kruse, who has lived in CD 13 for 16 years, surmises, "A lot of [the candidates] are running because of the business development and the money that's in Hollywood. It has served Councilman Garcetti very nicely."
Eric Garcetti, who has represented CD 13 for 12 years, is running for mayor with endorsements or financial backing from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee and wealthy developers including Marty Shelton, vice president of real estate brokerage NAI Capital; and Maurice Ramirez, executive vice president of developer AMCAL Housing. Former Disney chairman Michael Eisner threw Garcetti an A-list fundraiser at his mansion.
The candidates for Garcetti's open seat are making a mad dash to win one of the most career-advancing City Council seats in California. Its gerrymandered, bizarrely shaped boundaries create a shape like an angry squirrel, and its trendy core has been dubbed by some the "Tri-Hipster Area." Among the top-tier candidates are Matt Szabo, former deputy mayor to Antonio Villaraigosa; Mitch O'Farrell, former senior adviser to Garcetti; John Choi, former director at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; and Alex De Ocampo, senior director for billionaire Haim Saban's charitable organization, Saban Family Foundation.
To be crass but accurate, "It's valuable political real estate," says Michael Woo, now dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, describing Council District 13, which he once represented.
Garcetti is using his CD 13 visibility for his strong run for mayor. In 1993, then–CD 13 Councilman Woo beat many in the mayoral primary but lost the runoff to Richard Riordan. Jackie Goldberg successfully ran for the state Legislature while representing CD 13, serving three terms.
No city council race on the West Coast in the past year has attracted $1 million for a mere primary. But by mid-January, direct contributions to candidates in CD 13 hit $1.05 million. The next-priciest contest in L.A. was downtown's Council District 9, where $687,568 was given to candidates vying to represent that weighty political real estate. The winner will represent skyscraper owners, upscale new areas and the poor.
As of January, the County Fed union and its chief, Maria Elena Durazo, had spent more than $135,000 in CD 13 on a so-called "independent expenditure" ad blitz to elect John Choi, an obscure, $122,000-a-year Public Works commissioner who quit to run for City Council. Choi was virtually unknown to residents until a few months ago.
"New arrivals" to CD 13, as candidate Mitch O'Farrell calls them, include Choi, Szabo, De Ocampo and L.A. Fire Department assistant chief Emile Mack. Each has moved there within the past year or two, raising suspicion that career climbers dominate the ballot. (Similarly, longtime Inglewood politician Curren Price moved to CD 9 and then announced his run there.)
"It's a terrible red flag," says former Los Angeles Daily News editor and City Hall blogger/watchdog Ron Kaye. It signals "that they're looking for opportunity."
The March 5 primary will cut the field of 12 in CD 13 down to two. And those two could advance to the runoff by a margin of just 200 or 300 votes — thanks to voter disinterest in city council elections. Yet CD 13 is home to about 250,000 people and is undergoing wrenching change: Many thousands of working-class Latino families have fled Hollywood, East Hollywood, Echo Park and Silver Lake due to gentrification, creating a massive net population loss not seen in the city since black flight from South L.A. in the 1980s and '90s.
"Carpetbagging," as some dub the politician hopefuls who move to council districts where seats are opening, works. When Goldberg left City Hall for Sacramento in 2000, Garcetti moved to the district and won her seat. With $1 billion being spent to redevelop Hollywood, Garcetti grew close to big developers, attorneys and entertainment honchos. Whoever represents CD 13, Woo explains, that "person has the opportunity to make a lot of relationships outside of the district."
Community activist Edwardson is stressing out: "If a council member has been bought off by big developers," she says, "how can we expect him to work for us? He's supposed to represent us, and if we don't have that, we're in trouble."
Longtime Garcetti aide O'Farrell, a resident of tough Glassell Park since 1992, says some of the March 5 candidates moved in "for the primary purpose to launch their political careers." O'Farrell was a local community activist before landing a job at City Hall in 2002, and describes himself as one of the genuine "neighborhood guys" on the ballot, along with Robert Negrete of Atwater Village, Jose Sigala of Echo Park and Sam Kbushyan of Hollywood.
But O'Farrell wasn't endorsed by his longtime boss, Garcetti, who has stayed out of the primary, probably to avoid making enemies while he fundraises for his race.
Besides O'Farrell, who is gay, two other gay candidates are running — Szabo and De Ocampo, an inner-city success story raised in gang-plagued neighborhoods in District 13 who lived in poverty with his widowed mother and four siblings.
"We begged Mitch [O'Farrell] to run," Peters says of a group of Echo Park activists. "He always works with the community and gets things done."
Hollywood activist Ziggy Kruse, on the other hand, likes Kbushyan. Kruse is a ready critic of Garcetti's urban-renewal practices, which helped push out an unpredicted, and huge, chunk of the Latino working class, as L.A. Weekly reported in "Hollywood's Urban Cleansing" on Jan. 3. She says O'Farrell is "like Eric. We need change."
It's a bit harder to find a community activist who has passion for Choi, the County Fed union insider who moved into Echo Park. "I don't know anyone in the community who is backing Choi," Peters says. But some voters will — and that makes Ferris Wehbe, a highly engaged resident who once faced down drug dealers as a member of Hollywood Sentinels Neighborhood Watch, worry that labor is trying to buy CD 13. "I will do everything I can to defeat [Choi]," Wehbe says. "This district deserves better." Wehbe supports O'Farrell, but also thinks highly of De Ocampo.
Political analyst Jamie Regalado describes UCLA grad Choi as one of the frontrunners because of the inescapable fact that big unions are "spending money [on campaign ads, consultants, phone banks] and giving him ground troops." Choi did not respond to interview requests.
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Szabo, endorsed by Jackie Goldberg, says his own motives for moving into CD 13 are pure, noting that he has lived there before. "I want to work for the community who can't afford a lobbyist," says the former deputy mayor.
De Ocampo can claim possibly the most stirring personal achievements outside the confines of government. After his Filipino father died when he was a boy, family dinners "regularly consisted of two cans of sardines, a bowl of rice," he recalls. For years, the Cal State Northridge grad has worked for the Saban Family Foundation, where De Ocampo manages $200 million in charitable projects.
Says De Ocampo, "I want to give back. There's a lot of work to be done."
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.