At a recent meeting of the Los Feliz Improvement Association, City Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge was given a hero’s farewell. The three-term councilman, termed out after 13 ½ years on the job, got a trophy, a tribute video and a standing ovation.
For David Ryu, it was not a great act to follow. He was there to debate Carolyn Ramsay, who is LaBonge’s handpicked successor in the May 19 L.A. City Council election. A newcomer to city politics, Ryu has pitched himself as an outsider who will take on the City Hall establishment.
But LaBonge, a dervish of civic enthusiasm, has made a lot of friends over the years. So Ryu had to adjust. “People call me a ball of energy, but I could only hope to be half the places Tom is,” Ryu said, before transitioning, a little awkwardly, to his core message. “It’s about status quo and change. It’s about insider and outsider.”
From the muted response, it seemed there was a significant constituency for the status quo.
“They get advantages of being the incumbent,” Ryu said later. “I knew it was not gonna be my crowd.”
Ramsay worked for seven years in LaBonge’s office, most recently as his chief of staff. Her advantages include the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti, most of the City Council, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. Times and the L.A. Daily News.
But Ryu has run a spirited campaign, tapping a vein of discontent with LaBonge over development and infrastructure. He has often outshined Ramsay at debates with ardent promises to heed neighborhood concerns.
Though he is an underdog, Ryu can’t be counted out. In the March 3 primary, he trailed Ramsay by just 85 votes of more than 24,000 cast.
Ramsay, 55, got her start in city affairs through her neighborhood group, the Windsor Square Association. She led an effort to install grass medians on Larchmont Boulevard.
Earle Vaughan, past president of the Larchmont Business Association, said Ramsay was tireless in winning over the businesses on Larchmont. “She knows everyone,” he says. “She brought them along kicking and screaming.”
In 2006, LaBonge hired her as a field deputy. She rose through the ranks, becoming his communications director and deputy chief of staff before leaving for a job at the Trust for Public Land. After a year there, she returned for a two-year stint as LaBonge’s chief of staff.
In an interview, Ramsay says it took her years to figure out how City Hall really works.
“You’re dealing with large budgets, large projects,” she says. “I know the general managers, the assistant general managers. I know what the different areas of expertise are among city staff.”
One of the most notable achievements during her tenure was the expansion of Griffith Park through the city’s acquisition of 138 acres around Cahuenga Peak. She has repeatedly touted it during her campaign, saying she helped lead the effort.
But that claim doesn’t sit well with Renee Weitzer, a longtime City Hall staffer who worked for LaBonge throughout his tenure until her retirement last month.
“She had nothing to do with Cahuenga Peak,” Weitzer says. “She was the communications director. Now she’s taking credit.”
Weitzer is not a fan of Ramsay’s, and is backing Ryu. She says LaBonge’s office was well run during the early part of his tenure, but that things went downhill when Ramsay came back in 2012. She says Ramsay was not sincere, did not understand planning or politics, and hired new people who were loyal to her.
“When she came to be chief of staff, she made most of the staff miserable,” Weitzer says. “She wanted to show power. She doesn’t know how to deal with staff. A lot of people became very uncomfortable.”
In response to those claims, Ramsay says that she helped generate publicity about the Cahuenga Peak, which led Hugh Hefner to donate $900,000 to help buy it.
“I only had the most respect for Renee, and only treated her with respect,” Ramsay says. “We brought in very good people and I stand by them.”
LaBonge defends Ramsay’s claim to have led the effort to buy the 138 acres.
“This was driven by me, but I don’t do things alone, and the greatest help came from Carolyn Ramsay,” LaBonge says. “I’m disappointed that Ms. Weitzer seems to be exercising misinformation. She’s a tremendous person but I find that shocking that she would paint a different picture than what is the case.”
LaBonge says he is backing Ramsay “1,000 percent”: “She has the heart, and soul and mind to do a great job immediately for the people of the 4th District.”
Ryu, 39, does not have Ramsay’s depth of experience at City Hall. He worked at the county for five years, as a deputy to Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. After that, he spent six years as a government affairs director for Kedren Community Health Center, a county contractor.
He has served on the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council and was among the Asian-American activists who fought, unsuccessfully, to have Koreatown consolidated in one council district in 2012.
“Was he a major player? I would say no,” says Grace Yoo, one of the leaders of the fight, though she acknowledges he was engaged on the issue.
Yoo, who ran unsuccessfully against Council President Herb Wesson in March, says that while Ryu is not part of the City Hall establishment, he is savvier than the average outsider candidate.
“He’s not as green as I was,” she says.
Ryu has been studying up on city issues since launching his campaign a year ago. But in debates, he often seems to have a surface-level understanding of many matters. He frequently promises to do whatever the community wants, without always having a firm grasp on what that might be.
“He’s not qualified,” says Scott Suh, who is the president of Ryu’s neighborhood council. “This is not time for on-the-job training.”
Ryu does appear much more knowledgeable and nuanced on homelessness and mental health — a topic he worked on for 11 years. Many of his supporters expect he will learn quickly and grow into the job.
“He has a very inquisitive and intelligent mind,” says Jim O’Sullivan, president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, who met with Ryu recently to discuss development concerns. “He knew a lot more than I thought he did.”
While Ryu might be untested, many of his supporters feel they already know what they’re getting with Ramsay — and it isn’t good enough. In neighborhoods from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake, there are many residents who feel LaBonge hasn’t listened to their concerns.
“There’s a lot of people who feel that, especially in his later years, Tom paid more attention to getting his picture taken than to some issues in the neighborhood,” says Jay Beeber, a former candidate who is backing Ryu after losing in the primary.
Asked what separates her from LaBonge, Ramsay has said she is a better listener and more thoughtful. But some don't see much difference.
“To me, Carolyn is a lot like Tom, but without the rah-rah bluster,” says Jerome Courshon of Silver Lake. “I think her leadership will be the same, which is minimal leadership.”
“The fact that I don’t have direct City Hall experience is a positive,” Ryu says in an interview. “I’m independent, and I’m gonna come in with a clean slate and a fresh new set of ideas.”
“But I do have the government experience. I do know how to navigate... It’s not about who you know. It’s about how you navigate.”
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Ramsay isn’t impressed with that line of thinking.
“I think he’s a politician who wants to get a job,” she says. “The city needs brain surgery. You don’t bring in a podiatrist to do brain surgery.”
For his part, Ryu thinks he has the establishment running scared.
“This should not be an anointed thing,” he says.