City Council debates are normally tepid affairs. Not so Monday night's Council District 1 debate between incumbent Gil Cedillo and bicycle activist Joe Bray-Ali, which was a riotous event that felt more like an Eastern European soccer match than a forum on municipal politics. Hundreds of audience members screamed and shouted throughout the hour-and-a-half event, at the candidates and at one another.
The night was so tense that the police were called, though they did little more than watch the chaos unfold.
"It was really crazy, really negative, hostile," says Maggie Darett-Quiroz, a community activist and Cedillo supporter who's been to more than a dozen local debates. "I don’t know why. I’ve never seen that before – in my life."
The debate was held in Westlake, near MacArthur Park, and it felt very much like Cedillo's home turf. He strode into the room, looking cool and relaxed in a white guayabera, to the booming cries "CE-DI–LLO! CE-DI–LLO!" as if he were entering a boxing match. Bray-Ali, looking nervous in a gray suit and green tie, had his supporters as well, and they weren't exactly shy, but they appeared heavily outnumbered.
Though Cedillo finished a strong first place in the March primary, he fell just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with Bray-Ali, the second-place finisher. For the last few weeks, Bray-Ali has found himself on the defensive, having to explain why he was registered, for years during the Obama administration, as a Republican (which he did in a rather awkward Facebook Live video) and having to explain his secret endorsement deal with fellow candidate Jesse Rosas, a community activist who finished in last place with only 875 votes.
On Monday, Cedillo took every opportunity to attack Bray-Ali for those faults, and even for growing up on the Westside of Los Angeles (Bray-Ali is from Mar Vista).
The line that drew the most thunderous applause, a standing ovation in fact, was: "If you want to stop gentrification, don't vote for a gentrifier!"
This is the fault line underlying the Cedillo/Bray-Ali race. Though the two men probably agree on most policy positions, they are emblematic of two different types of residents of the Eastside of Los Angeles. The district includes Highland Park, Cypress Park, Eagle Rock and Mount Washington, all of which have seen an influx of new residents and increases in both home prices and rents.
"Council District 1 has a lot of communities that are facing a false dichotomy between existing residents who are facing the pressures of displacement and newer residents who have, at times, different priorities," says Eric Ares, deputy director for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and one of the main organizers of the debate. "It reflects a citywide tension of, who is the city of L.A. for?"
Bray-Ali accused Cedillo, who serves as chair of the City Council Housing Committee, of encouraging the development of luxury apartment towers, of taking campaign donations from developers (included the widely loathed Geoff Palmer) and of standing idly by while the price of housing spirals out of control. Cedillo's attack was more personal: He charged Bray-Ali himself of encouraging gentrification by working for a real estate agent – his brother, Adam Bray-Ali.
Though the debate was ostensibly about housing policy, most of the answers — especially Cedillo's — quickly veered into the territory of personal attacks.
"It was clear that folks were disappointed that both candidates, for the most part, didn’t address the housing issue that people care about," Ares says. "It was designed to address housing, gentrification, the Ellis Act, all these things in L.A. that are critical for the future of the city. Rather than speak to those issues, it seemed like they were there to mudsling and voice prescripted attacks."
The audience, however, seemed to revel in the attacks, and joined in with some of their own, frequently interrupting the candidates.
"Tell the truth!" one man screamed at Bray-Ali.
"Stay on topic!" one shouted at Cedillo. "The topic is the truth!" another yelled.
Perhaps the ugliest moment came when Bray-Ali, whose father was born in Northern India, was speaking, and an audience member shouted, "Go back to India!"
"It’s sad that our representative did not admonish that behavior," says Bray-Ali spokesman Michael Atkins.
"That was absolutely wrong," says Cedillo spokeswoman Helen Sanchez. "The councilmember strongly denounces that. He didn’t hear it. Otherwise he would have said something."
Audience members shouted at one another throughout the night, getting in each other's faces, at times having to be separated. One incident in particular caused an uproar that almost forced the debate to be halted.
Community activist Maggie Darett-Quiroz says that during the debate, she was cheering for Cedillo, and a man behind her put his hands on her shoulders, as if to keep her from standing up, and told her to shut up. She says the man introduced himself as Bray-Ali's brother, Adam, the real estate agent.
"I was like, 'Why is this guy holding onto me?'" Darrett-Quiroz says. "I was a little frightened." Audience members surrounded Adam Bray-Ali and shouted at him. He was forced to leave the room.
Adam Bray-Ali says he never touched the woman.
"She was standing on the side yelling when Cedillo was speaking," Adam Bray-Ali says. "I asked her to please be quiet. She yelled at me — 'Don’t tell me to shut up, my husband was in the military for 24 years!'"
Darrett-Quiroz says she has filed a police report. Adam Bray-Ali says he has not spoken to the police.
"The absolute last thing I would choose to do is manhandle a woman," he says. As far as the evening in general, he says, "It was the most charged and frenetic place I’ve ever been at in my life. I don’t know how to properly describe it."
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In a weird and funny coda to the evening, Cedillo's three-ring-binder notebook, which he consulted throughout the debate, was left on the table and taken. Photographs of the notebook have been posted by a Cedillo-trolling twitter account.
Sanchez says the book was "stolen" and that the campaign has filed a police report. For those keeping score at home, that's two police reports and one xenophobic epithet, all in the space of an hour and a half. Politics!
Correction: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that Council District 1 includes Boyle Heights, and the story has been amended to remove an anecdote about gentrification backlash in that neighborhood. We regret the error.