A former union leader and state legislator, Gil Cedillo is one of the most liberal of Los Angeles' 15 city council members. He was an early supporter of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primary, and his longtime crusade, as a state assemblyman, was to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. That earned him a reputation as a tireless advocate for immigrants, as well as the nickname (from detractors) "one-bill Gil."
But his stance against bike lanes may be Cedillo's Achilles' heel.
Running for re-election in March for the Northeast L.A. District 1 seat, Cedillo is facing a surprisingly tough challenger in Joe Bray-Ali, a 37-year-old bicycle activist and owner of the Flying Pigeon, a bike shop in Cypress Park. Bray-Ali has raised a healthy sum of $50,000 in campaign contributions and has qualified, so far, for another $49,000 in matching funds. Even more impressive: He recently received the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
"They’ve never endorsed me," says Cedillo, dismissively. "I’ve won 13 out of 14 elections, and they’ve never endorsed me. That’s OK, I’ve spent my life fighting for and advocating for immigrants, poor people, disadvantaged people, the homeless, working men and women, union members. And I’m not gonna change for an endorsement."
Bray-Ali says about the endorsement: "That was a game changer, for a campaign like mine. That endorsement was Gil’s to lose. And he has clearly lost the plot. He has literally nothing to show for his four years in office."
Cedillo first incurred the wrath of Bray-Ali and the bike community in 2014, when he killed a plan to put bike lanes on a three-mile stretch of North Figueroa, in Northeast Los Angeles. His 2015 vote against the city's new mobility plan, which among other things would add 300 miles of protected bike lanes to city streets, helped cement his reputation as L.A.'s most anti-bike-lane city councilman.
The councilman says the bike lanes on Figueroa were "unpopular" outside the small, tight-knit community of cyclists — far more people prefer to drive or take the bus. He also says the bike lanes would have been unsafe on such a busy street.
"I don’t know what planet you have to come from, how blind to the facts you have to be to make that assertion," Bray-Ali retorts. "Since Gil did that, half a dozen people have lost their lives on the street of Figueroa." (Streetsblog notes that there were three traffic deaths on North Figueroa in 2015.)
Many "safer streets" activists argue that one of the best ways to eliminate traffic deaths is to close lanes and force cars to drive slower. Often called a "road diet," this tactic is a key part of the city's mobility plan. Others say "road diets" make traffic worse — and that they favor an entitled group of young people over the masses.
"This whole bike plan is the most ridiculous, class-ignorant transportation policy," says Gloria Romero, a former state senator who lived in Council District 1 for many years (though she recently moved to Venice). "It's like the epitome of gentrification and urbanization."
Bray-Ali has put a lot into his long-shot campaign. He closed his bike shop and liquidated his inventory in order to pay for his expenses while he campaigns. He even got a haircut (though when the Times posted its endorsement, it initially ran an old photo of Bray-Ali with long, flowing hair; the photo has since been updated). And he's expanded his platform well beyond bike lanes, questioning Cedillo's pro-development stance.
The Times editorial board questioned it, too: "Cedillo has a reputation among community activists as someone hell-bent on helping developers build market-rate housing while paying little regard for the more prosaic concerns of the neighborhoods." (District 1's neighborhoods include Chinatown, Cypress Park, Echo Park, Glassell Park, Highland Park, Lincoln Park, Montecito Heights, Mount Washington and Westlake.)
But Cedillo says that's what's needed to ease the housing shortage — a flood of new construction.
"I believe we need more units of housing than we have people, and that’s how we address [housing] costs and homelessness," he says. "For us to create communities for bike lanes, we’ve got to have density and have people live near where they work. You have to have density, and for that, you need to have housing."
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Bray-Ali is advocating for more, smaller developments and the legalization of "granny flats," while also pushing for the preservation of open space.
"There’s a lot of open hillside space in this district that should be rezoned, should be turned into passive recreation areas, to be connected to the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco," he says.
Does Bray-Ali stand a chance? Setting aside the fact that Cedillo has out-raised him 7-to-1, or that newspaper endorsements hardly mean a thing in this day and age, consider this: The last time an incumbent city councilman lost a re-election fight was 14 years ago, in 2003, when Nick Pacheco was defeated by the former Assembly speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa. It's difficult to recall the last time an incumbent was defeated by an outsider candidate like Bray-Ali.
There are two other candidates running: Giovany Hernandez, an organizer for the California Charter Schools Association, and Jesse Rosas, a longtime Highland Park resident who once owned an auto parts shop. Bray-Ali will be hoping to keep Cedillo under the 50 percent threshold, in order to force a two-candidate runoff in May.