Who’s Reeling in the Big Bucks in This Year’s City Council Campaigns?

David Ryu nears a $1 million war chest, and other highlights from the money game

In less than a month Los Angeles voters will go the polls. While the winners of seven city council contests and a battery of other races won’t be revealed until the evening of March 3, one key aspect of the election cycle has come into focus: we know who’s scoring big in the money-raising game.

A whopping $4.7 million has already been raised by candidates in seven city council races, according to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission (the tally is up through January 18; the next set of figures will be revealed on February 20). So far, $2.95 million has been spent.

Here are some of the most interesting elements from the money game.

Cash Flash

The cumulative candidate tally has already surpassed the most recent council races, in 2017, when a total of $4.46 million was raised in the primaries (additional funds were spent for a couple races that went to a runoff), according to Ethics Commission documents. It is also approaching the 2015 level, when candidates in seven council primaries together netted $5.28 million. Can the 2020 crew surpass the level of five years ago? It’s possible, as there is always a furious fundraising blitz as election day approaches.


Dollars for David

District 4 councilman David Ryu has the largest war chest this cycle, with an amazing $947,635 raised by January 18. Ryu, who was first elected in 2015, collects checks like Clayton Kershaw collects strikeouts. I’m half wondering if a supporter promised Ryu a pony if he hits seven figures.

Ryu appears to be be in record territory. The Ethics Commission website holds fundraising data dating back to 2001, and the next highest individual primary tally in that period was District 14 councilman José Huizar in 2015, who collected $947,472 in a re-election victory over Gloria Molina. That surpassed Antonio Villaraigosa, also in CD 14, in the 2003 primary. The former leader of a branch of the state legislature raised $773,000 in that campaign. He won the seat, then ran victoriously for mayor two years later.

Speaking of Raising Money in the 14th and Running for Mayor…

The candidate with the second-highest total this cycle is Kevin de León. The ex-President pro Tempore of the state Senate is one of five people seeking to replace a termed-out Huizar; he has snagged $640,000.

Although this election has not even taken place, de León is already being frequently discussed as a potential candidate for mayor in 2022, when Garcetti is termed out. So is current County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is running for a District 10 council post, and has the third-highest fundraising sum, with $578,000. Many observers expect both Ridley-Thomas and de León to gallop to victory and, within a year, launch runs for mayor.


Strong Competition

While Ryu, de León, and Ridley-Thomas all boast sizable fundraising figures and strong campaign machines, each faces viable competition. Ryu has two well-financed challengers: Sarah Kate Levy has pulled in $270,000 and Nithya Raman has secured $221,000. This means that District 4 mailboxes will be at risk of exploding from the sheer volume of slick campaign mailers sent by the candidates. As in all city races, if no one secures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a November runoff.

Meanwhile, de León is battling four candidates, including LAUSD School Board member Monica Garcia, who had pulled in $200,000 by January 18, and Cyndi Otteson, who had raised about $45,000 (Raquel Zamora and John Jimenez are far behind in the cash-grab game). Ridley-Thomas’s four competitors include Grace Yoo, who has notched about $219,000, and Aura Vasquez, who has pulled in $91,000 (Channing Martinez and Melvin Snell have much lower totals).

Hey Big Spenders

Raising all that money is just the first part—then you get to spend it! So far, de León has dropped more cash than anyone else, with a gobsmacking $543,000 going to a litany of campaign consultants, pollsters, mailers, postage, office expenses, voter data, etc. It’s all laid out in the Ethics Commission reports for those with the time and fortitude to pore through it.

Meanwhile, Ryu has reported spending $476,000. He also tops the list of candidates with the most “Cash on Hand” as election day approaches. As of January 18, he had $629,000 in his campaign account. Repeat the line about bulging District 4 mailboxes.


Match Game

In the effort to level the playing field, the city has a “matching funds” program that gives money to candidates who qualify for the ballot and demonstrate the ability to secure donations from a broad array of local voters. By February 3, $778,000 had been dispensed. The lion’s share has gone to District 4, as according to the Ethics Commission, Levy, Raman, and Ryu have each secured the maximum of $151,000 in matching funds. In the District 10, Vasquez has received nearly $108,000, and District 14 candidate Otteson boasts about $70,500. Many candidates in other races are seeking the municipal money, but so far the only other person with matching funds is Loraine Lundquist, a District 12 challenger to incumbent John Lee. Lundquist has received $147,000 from the city program.


More than Money

It’s worth noting that a cash advantage is not definitive in local races—the votes are what count. In the 2018 L.A. County Sheriff’s campaign, Alex Villanueva ousted incumbent Jim McDonnell despite being vastly outspent. And in a District 15 special election in 2011, Warren Furutani raised more in the primary than each of his ten competitors, but lost to police officer Joe Buscaino. Buscaino’s victory provided a reminder that an effective grassroots contender with a solid ground game can torpedo the prediction of all the so-called experts.

Still, those are exceptions, and more often than not, big money leads to victory.

Cruise Control

Second District Councilman Paul Krekorian and Sixth District rep (and council president) Nury Martinez face the epitome of token competition. Krekorian has raised $173,752, which happens to be precisely $173,752 more than both of the other people on the ballot, Ayinde Jones and Rudy Melendez, have raised. Martinez’s challengers have more cumulative cash, but barely—Benito Bernal has pulled in $3,850, while William Haller has not detailed any contributions. With $247,000 in her coffers, Martinez won’t be sweating the competition.

Easy Street

Could District 8 councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson beat up a ghost? That’s what I’m wondering, as the incumbent has raised $296,000, even though he is the only person who qualified for the ballot in the district. Harris-Dawson has already spent $135,000 and will waltz to re-election. It’ll be interesting to see how he spends his cash, given the utter lack of competition.

RELATED: The Race to Represent L.A. City Council District 4 Could Get Competitive

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