In City Elections, More Money Doesn’t Always Mean a Big Victory

The fundraising race is on for 2022, but Los Angeles has seen numerous instances where an outfunded candidate finishes on top

Joe Buscaino, Sam Yebri, and Tim McOsker had reason to smile wide when the most recent round of campaign financing figures were revealed. The $818,000 that current councilman and mayoral aspirant Buscaino raised in the first half of 2021 put him atop the money field among those seeking to succeed Eric Garcetti. Similarly, District 5 council hopeful Yebri’s to-date total of $520,000 is more than anyone aiming for any council seat, incumbents included. The $316,000 notched by McOsker through June 30 is more than seven times the tally of his closest District 15 rival.

Those cash displays mean all three will coast to victory in next year’s elections, right? Well, maybe.

Cash is the lifeblood of every campaign, and raising a yacht-load of money sure makes it easier to hire consultants and pay for polls and slick mailers. However, a look at past Los Angeles elections reveals that a monetary advantage—even one in the six figures—is no guarantee of victory. In fact, the last two decades have delivered a battery of instances in which the better-funded candidate lost on Election Day.

Why does this happen? There are many reasons, but history shows that a candidate backed by a seeming political machine can be thumped by an opponent with deep community support and sturdy neighborhood relationships. Here, in reverse chronological order, is a rundown of six notable cases in which the cash-poor candidate finished on top (figures come from financial statements provided to the City Ethics Commission).

Nithya Raman, 2020: Last fall, urban planner Raman became the first person in 18 years to knock off a sitting Los Angeles council member, and her grassroots campaign that mobilized hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors and phone bank created a blueprint for a new wave of progressive candidates. It was an outcome many observers never saw coming, at least early on—for the March primary, District 4 incumbent David Ryu spent more than $1.2 million, compared with $424,000 for Raman. Ryu also benefitted from another $214,000 dropped on his behalf by independent expenditure (or IE) groups.

Raman garnered 41 percent of the vote, but when Ryu managed only 45 percent (a third candidate grabbed 14 percent) a runoff was needed. In the November election each spent about $850,000, a huge sum for a council contest. Ryu also saw $523,000 in support from IEs, but it didn’t matter; the tide was with Raman, who won with 53 percent.

Ron Galperin, 2013: It sounds logical that candidates with City Hall experience and a nearly 2 to 1 money advantage will crush outsiders come election time. Apparently, no one told Galperin when he ran for City Controller against Councilman Dennis Zine. Checkbooks flew open for the political insider, and Zine spent nearly $1.1 million in the primary. Galperin had less than $600,000, but finished first.

The two had nearly equivalent war chests in the runoff, each spending in the $600,000s, but Galperin won the seat with 56.6 percent.

Eric Garcetti, 2013: Was Garcetti really outgunned in his first try at the mayor’s office? In a way, yes—while he and Wendy Greuel both spent about $5.3 million in the primary, another $2.7 million in IE money (much of it from public employee unions) went to promote Greuel and attack Garcetti. Yet Garcetti’s crafty campaign team turned this against Greuel, questioning whether she could stay independent, and he finished first in the primary.

In the runoff Garcetti outspent Greuel by about $1 million, but she saw a $2 million advantage in IE outlays. Still, it made no difference, and Garcetti became mayor with 54 percent of the vote.

mitch o'farrell city council
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell (Photo by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Mitch O’Farrell, 2013: Something was up in 2013, as a third election result went counter to the cash tote board. O’Farrell was a council aide seeking to succeed his boss, District 13 representative Garcetti. But any Garcetti connections didn’t provide much advantage when it came to fundraising: With $187,000, O’Farrell was outspent in the primary by four other candidates.

Yet in a rock fight of an election, O’Farrell’s community ties gave him 19 percent of the vote; it wasn’t a lot, but it put him atop a 12-person field. In the runoff he and opponent John Choi each spent about $515,000, but as with the mayor’s race, labor groups spent heavily on IEs for Choi, surpassing O’Farrell’s IE total by almost $285,000. No matter—O’Farrell won with 52.75 percent.

Joe Buscaino, 2011: Yes, it’s the same Joe Buscaino. During a special election for the District 15 council seat, Buscaino, an LAPD senior lead officer, spent $287,000 in the primary. It was a sizable sum, but was dwarfed by the $425,000 that the campaign of state Assemblyman Warren Furutani delivered. Buscaino, who patrolled San Pedro, finished first in the primary.

The runoff was all Buscaino, as he outraised Furutani, then scored 59.5 percent of the vote.

Antonio Villaraigosa, 2005: Villaraigosa ran for mayor against Jim Hahn in 2001 and lost. Four years later, incumbent Hahn outspent AnVil by $800,000 in the primary, and IEs delivered another $377,000 worth of support to Hahn. Yet that was not enough to buoy the incumbent, who took flack for replacing the police chief and knocking back a San Fernando Valley secession effort. Although political observers would largely come to credit Hahn for those moves, Villaraigosa easily finished in first place in the primary.

Donors saw the writing on the wall and were desperate to curry favor with the rising star; in the general election the financial picture flipped, with Villaraigosa spending $5.3 million, more than twice what Hahn dropped. Villaraigosa may have been the underdog early on, but on election day he coasted to victory with 59 percent.

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