Mito Aviles, John D'Amico, Scott Schmidt and three other challenging candidates for West Hollywood City Council are trying to do the nearly impossible on March 8: defeat longtime incumbents John Heilman and Abbe Land, and Councilwoman Lindsey Horvath, appointed to the City Council by the two incumbents.
“We're up against well-financed incumbents with [real estate] developer dollars,” says one rival candidate, Steve Martin, “and they're going to hit whoever is a major challenger.”
In the 27-year history of WeHo, Heilman, who took office the year after the city's founding, when Ronald Reagan was president, has never been voted out. The city has no term limits. Longtime insiders have such a strong grip on City Hall that only one outsider lacking the endorsement of a sitting City Council member has ever won: Steve Martin, who wants to reprise his minor miracle from 1994.
West Hollywood's highly charged election season this year has taken the comfortable incumbents by surprise. Horvath scurried away from an inquisitive reporter at a public event. After a recent debate, she was accused by her challengers and others in the audience of getting text-messaged help from her campaign manager as she stiffly answered questions.
Heilman, an elected official running for public office, won't answer questions from L.A. Weekly, and when KCRW's “Which Way, L.A.?” invited him onto its news-talk program, Heilman did not respond.
The recent Weekly cover story “Dethroning West Hollywood's Martinets” has given five mostly cash-strapped but serious challengers sudden exposure, in a small but world-famous city whose municipal politics generally is ignored by traditional Los Angeles media.
“I get approached every day by someone who wants to hold a fundraiser for me or people who want to endorse me,” says Aviles, who appeared on the cover of the Weekly with two mannequins he had decorated with cutouts of Land's and Heilman's faces. “I used to always have to reach out to people, but now they are reaching out to me.”
But whoever wins the three seats up for grabs must get reluctant residents to the polls — and only 18 percent of WeHo's 23,131 registered voters showed up for city elections two years ago.
“It's sometimes hard to be optimistic,” says Allegra Allison, a community activist who worked on previous unsuccessful efforts to oust the incumbents, like Land, who has served twice for a total of 18 years. “People say they want change, but they don't go out and vote.”
Council members Heilman, Land and Horvath have enough money to send a steady stream of political mailers to the town's few thousand “likely voters.” Even D'Amico, an outside challenger who has raised a substantial $105,000, can't begin to match the combined $260,000 raised by the incumbents. And because Heilman, Land and Horvath are running on a single slate, they are pooling costs to some degree, jointly paying for campaign literature and using the same campaign manager, Dante Atkins, and veteran Southern California political consultant Parke Skelton. Heilman is so secure in his belief he'll win that he didn't create a campaign website — almost a requisite in California politics.
Yet because West Hollywood is only 1.9 square miles, four of the challengers, D'Amico and the three who lack his six-figure campaign chest — Aviles, Martin and Schmidt — have managed to mount campaigns that feature precinct-mapping efforts, door-knocking and phone-banking. (A fifth challenger, Lucas John, is passing out literature, debating and attending meet-and-greets, but isn't pursuing a full-on neighborhood precinct campaign. A sixth challenger, renters' rights advocate Mark Gonzaga, has kept a low profile.)
Martin says, “Every time I turn around, I meet a Mito [Aviles] precinct walker, and they're very passionate.” But, he notes, “The insurgents are putting a lot of faith in [social media] because they don't have the financial resources. As far as gaining votes, we'll see.”
So far, D'Amico, Aviles and Schmidt each have a few hundred friends on their campaign Facebook pages — in an election where 50 extra votes can win the day. But nobody knows if Facebook interest is a measure of votes.
Many see Horvath as the most vulnerable incumbent. She's on the City Council because Heilman and Land maneuvered her into a seat in 2009, after opposing as too “expensive” a special election to let voters fill a rare opening created by the death of a 90-year-old council member.
Heilman, Land and two other council members required 39 West Hollywood residents interested in the empty seat to engage in a contest in which Heilman presented the list of “desirable traits.” Land decided how many minutes contestants would get to present those traits. The council then chose a friend of Heilman's and Land's — Horvath.
The process was wildly unpopular with some residents, who demanded a special election, which would have cost $150,000, but were denied it on the basis of cost. Yet it wouldn't have been much more than the $115,000 Heilman and Land voted to splurge on “production-related services” for WeHo's 25th anniversary.
Horvath, who had lived in West Hollywood for just 18 months, has been taking heat for that — and has proved a shaky campaigner.
At a recent debate, “Lindsey, from the beginning of the debate to the end, was looking at her phone,” says John, who sat a few feet away from her. Aviles' political adviser, Eric Kroskrity, who sat near Horvath's campaign manager, Atkins, says he saw Atkins texting furiously during the debate.
When the Weekly asked Atkins if he had sent answers to Horvath, he refused to discuss the race.
The texting brouhaha became a hot topic, as did videotaped imagery of Horvath weaving through a crowd to get away from Ryan Gierach, editor of the website WeHo News, as he confronted her with questions at a public event.
Most of the outsiders have tried to capitalize on these controversies by Facebook sharing and re-tweeting reports originally published on West Hollywood Patch, the WeHo Daily website and WeHo News, and in L.A. Weekly.
But do West Hollywood voters care? On the city's east side, a large number of Russian-speaking immigrants have helped re-elect incumbents for decades.
Some of the challengers have reached out to them, but nobody knows if the Russian-speaking community is ready to change its voting habits. And the city's thousands of gay voters have been far more interested in national politics.
Website editor Gierach says average page views for his WeHo News have increased by more than 2,000 hits weekly as readers seek information — but whether those readers represent people who intend to vote or just those following the high jinks and gossip, nobody knows.
“There seems to be a lot of frustration with the status quo,” Martin says. “It's palpable. But I just don't know how it's going to translate on Election Day. I'm not getting my hopes up.”
Martin expects Team Heilman to send out political mailers attacking the most organized of the outsiders.
They are likely to slam D'Amico, a former city planning commissioner who broke with City Hall leaders over their planned redevelopment of a historic mansion and its land. D'Amico is believed to have attracted a slice of reliable voters.
His political consultant Renee Nahum, a veteran of West Hollywood City Council races, says the monied incumbents view D'Amico as a threat. “We've been hearing rumblings,” she says warily, “but we haven't seen anything yet.”
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.