Last summer, few people in Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood or Atwater Village had heard of John Choi, 32. He was raised in Orange County before moving to the Westside to get a law degree from UCLA, then last summer moved from downtown to what some call the Tri-Hipster Area.
An aide for two years to Martin Ludlow, the disgraced L.A. city councilman who illegally took union funds to pay for his 2003 City Council race, Choi thrived at City Hall. He was chosen by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to be his "body man" — a special assistant — and then was hired by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in a top post as economic development director. Villaraigosa gave Choi one of City Hall's true plums: a short but lucrative political appointment to the $122,000-a-year Board of Public Works.
Last year, Ludlow's successor and Choi's boss at "County Fed," Maria Elena Durazo, backed Choi's run for City Council District 13, covering Echo Park, Silver Lake, Atwater Village and Hollywood. Thanks to Durazo's endorsement and expected huge "independent expenditure," Choi soon was dubbed a "frontrunner" by media.
More than any City Council candidate in recent memory, Choi, who will face former Eric Garcetti field deputy Mitch O'Farrell in the May 21 runoff, is a creation of L.A.'s political king-making system, dominated by Durazo and Villaraigosa.
County Fed spent a vast sum on Choi and other union proponents who ran for open City Council seats on March 5, including Gil Cedillo, Bob Blumenfield, Felipe Fuentes, Curren Price and Mike Bonin. Choi appears to be part of Durazo's plan to build an invincible, pro-labor City Council to fend off belt-tightening at City Hall, including proposals to reform city worker pensions and to ask city workers to pay a small percentage of their health insurance premiums — a bill now footed entirely by Los Angeles taxpayers.
"The city needs a lot of financial retooling," says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who's long written about Durazo, "so having a strong labor majority on the council is going to protect the County Fed from cuts." As "one of the most powerful political figures in Los Angeles County," Walters says, Durazo "can anoint a winner." (Durazo did not return calls for comment.)
One City Council District 13 candidate who did not make the runoff and doesn't want to be named — he was afraid to upset Durazo — says she is trying "buy a seat." L.A. Weekly's Gene Maddaus reported in December that Choi told union insiders at the Service Employees International Union that, if elected, he'd make sure labor unions were "on the inside" during belt-tightening battles.
But from Atwater Village to Hollywood, some residents — and some of his rivals — say Choi parachuted in, and that his sympathies lie with Durazo.
Choi dismisses those characterizations as "crazy campaign stuff."
But Choi, who has virtually no track record in the area, was criticized for claiming he helped "speed up" the closely watched Echo Park Lake restoration project. In fact, TheEastsiderLA.com website noted, the restoration was far along before Choi's brief stint at Public Works. Choi continues to insist that, as a Villaraigosa commissioner, "I was managing a department that was overlooking that project, so I certainly had something to do with [it]."
"John had nothing to do with the project," says Echo Park activist Christine Peters, who backs Choi's rival, Mitch O'Farrell. Peters has been involved in the restoration since 2004.
Political analyst Jaime Regalado says Choi — unknown to voters, new to the community and up against well-regarded local leaders in the primary — would have been a second- or even a third-tier candidate if not for the $230,000 Durazo spent on him. Matt Szabo, the former L.A. deputy mayor who lost to O'Farrell and Choi in the March 5 primary, says, "He's clearly running a campaign based solely on his labor endorsement."
Few of the theories floated to explain "Where did John Choi come from?" are flattering.
CD 13 candidate Sam Kbushyan, a dark horse who placed a surprising third in the primary, says, "It's like someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'You will run.' ... Nowhere in a regular city or suburb can you be elected and not really live in the neighborhood. Only in Los Angeles."
Socorro Callejas, a Hollywood-area activist who focuses on food pantries for the poor, says Choi is unknown to her. "I had known Mitch for 10 years — he worked with the community." She backs O'Farrell.
Netty Carr, co-president of Friends of Atwater Village and a widely known former restaurateur in Silver Lake, says Choi "knows absolutely nothing about our neighborhoods." While Carr doesn't agree with O'Farrell on everything, she calls him a "straight shooter."
O'Farrell has displeased some residents by helping Garcetti during his eager push for dramatic density and development in Hollywood. Activist attorney Rick Abrams says, "Mitch has a lot of explaining to do. I believe he was with Garcetti from the beginning. How does he even explain Garcetti's Hollywood Community Plan?"
Even so, O'Farrell won the most votes on March 5 despite raising just one-fifth the money Choi's side raised. Between now and the May 21 runoff election, O'Farrell won't have anything approaching the union riches Choi's campaign will attract.
O'Farrell says that Villaraigosa's appointment of former body man Choi to Public Works "set the stage for him to run. ... It gave him entry."
The mayor's office won't comment.
But the fiery Choi retorts, "Mitch O'Farrell has been running for this office for the past 10 years. Everybody knows it.
"If the mayor was setting me up for a run," Choi adds, "why did he endorse one of my opponents?" (Villaraigosa endorsed his recently departed No. 2 policy adviser, Szabo, in the March 5 primary.)
Activist Peters believes Durazo wants Choi to push through a controversial 880-unit village proposed on idyllic grounds next to Barlow Respiratory Hotel near Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park. Durazo claims, on RebuildBarlow.org, that the high-density village will create 4,800 "good union jobs." Choi released a statement opposing the Barlow development but, Peters says, "He can change his mind once he gets in office."
Attorney Grace Yoo, a Choi supporter and executive director of the Korean American Coalition's L.A. chapter, says Choi's connections with the County Fed will give him a "pivotal role within the city." Yoo insists that Choi can get labor unions to agree to budget cuts, saying, "Sometimes it's easier to hear it from a friend." She adds, "He's no one's rubber stamp."
Choi was born in South Korea and largely raised in Fullerton. He says his viewpoint has "always been about equity. I've seen such disparity between people doing quite well and people struggling to put food on the table." He tells L.A. Weekly he moved to Echo Park last year with "an idea" that he might run after "a mix" of friends and advisers suggested he should.
Choi says he can't recall who advised him to run. He insists, "I'm going to be beholden to the people in the 13th District."
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He also says Durazo is merely one person at County Fed, and she's held accountable by union members. "She doesn't manufacture campaigns."
Durazo is hardly just one person at County Fed. She was national co-chair for both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns and is routinely described as among "the most powerful" figures in L.A. Downtown News once ranked her as more powerful than controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, councilman and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, billionaire developer Rick Caruso or California Speaker John Pérez.
Peters, who is president of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, says Choi "is like fairy dust — he just sort of arrived. ... I've never heard of the guy before, even when he was on the Board of Public Works."
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