If Mitch O’Farrell Goes Down, He’ll Go Down Swinging

Cityside Column: The councilmember hoping to keep his seat lashes out at L.A. Times’ and hospital owner Patrick Soon-Shiong

Last Tuesday morning, District 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell chucked the kind of bomb that you rarely see utilized by the city’s elected set. Think of it as the opening salvo in a five-month fight that could prove to be one of the bitterest and bloodiest Los Angeles has seen in a long time. The fact that it was directed not at O’Farrell’s ultimate target, but rather at an affluent city power-broker, makes everything more intriguing and delicious.

At 9 a.m., O’Farrell stood with a batch of supporters at the shuttered St. Vincent Hospital and called on Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the facility—he also owns the Los Angeles Times and a batch of biotech businesses—to work with the city on opening the property as an acute care facility for people experiencing homelessness. The move included the launch of a petition drive to get Soon-Shiong to come to the table. It states in part, “The City has attempted to work with Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in the past, but efforts have been unsuccessful.”

The facility’s roots go back well more than a century, but in 2018 owner Verity Healthcare filed for bankruptcy. The 366-bed hospital in the Westlake district closed in January 2020 and Soon-Shiong acquired the property that April. The hospital operated briefly early in the pandemic but has otherwise remained shuttered. O’Farrell asserts it could be a key tool in helping the unhoused, and he plans to travel to Sacramento to try to pry free some state funds.

But the councilmember’s messaging Tuesday was hardly “let’s all be excellent together!” The first sentence of the press release slaps at Soon-Shiong, identifying him as “the richest person in Los Angeles.” In case anyone somehow missed that, the lead quote also jabs at the surgeon and businessman’s fortune, O’Farrell stating, “It’s time for the richest person in Los Angeles, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, to put his vast financial wealth and considerable influence to good use,” and partner with the city to reopen St. Vincent.

In one of the most peculiar responses to an attack seen in a while, Soon-Shiong’s first quote in the newspaper he owns was, “unfortunately, I was not informed of today’s press conference.” He went on to offer vague lines about agreeing that medical and mental health care are important to battling homelessness, but committed to nothing.

Does O’Farrell truly want to use the hospital to address the city’s epic homelessness crisis? Absolutely. But this also represented a chance for him to adopt the adage, never let a crisis go to waste.

To be sure, O’Farrell is at a crisis moment.

The councilman who represents Silver Lake, Atwater Village, East Hollywood and other neighborhoods is fighting for his political life. Hours after the St. Vincent event, new election results showed that he had fallen further behind union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez in the race for the seat, and after the Friday vote update the climb became even steeper; the first-time candidate now claims 40.1 percent to the incumbent’s 32 percent. This came despite O’Farrell outspending his rival by nearly $350,000. Independent expenditure groups dropped another $1.45 million either supporting O’Farrell or slamming Soto-Martinez. The two will meet in a November runoff.

Soto-Martinez, like challengers in several other council races, is running to the incumbent’s left and trying to woo progressive voters. This is a crowd that seethed at O’Farrell after a sprawling tent encampment took over and then was removed from the park at Echo Park Lake in March 2021. O’Farrell cast the move as a success, saying crime was rampant at the site, and ultimately a public park was returned to neighbors, and hundreds of people experiencing homelessness were connected with housing options. Opponents argued that few people have ended up permanently off the streets, and point to activists and journalists who were detained during evening protests.

Multiple levels of strategy are at play here. Homelessness is the defining issue in virtually every current race in Los Angeles, and O’Farrell has indicated that homeless housing projects he has worked on for years in his district have not gotten appropriate attention. Indeed, there have been far more media headlines—many critical—about Echo Park Lake closing, than the tiny homes villages and other projects that he has opened in District 13.

Then there is the fact that the Times, as part of a battery of endorsements of left-leaning candidates this cycle, dismissed O’Farrell, saying of his two terms, “we think that’s enough,” and writing glowingly about Kate Pynoos (who got the endorsement, but finished third) and Soto-Martinez.

So even if Soon-Shiong doesn’t tell his editorial board who to endorse, or instruct his reporters on how to cover stories, O’Farrell has seized on the chance to throw a wrench at the billionaire, and position himself as someone taking a big step to aid the unhoused. Interestingly, he is not the only one glimpsing a political opportunity. On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who happens to be running for mayor against a different billionaire, tweeted, “There is a seven-story hospital sitting vacant in our city while tens of thousands of Angelenos are unhoused. That’s unacceptable.” She didn’t mention Soon-Shiong, the Times (which endorsed her) or even St. Vincent by name, but the facility stands seven stories, so connect the dots.

It’s tempting to say O’Farrell is cooked. When only one in three of the constituents you have represented for nine years votes for you, it’s hard to find sunshine. And the track record is ominous—two years ago, Council District 4 incumbent David Ryu was bounced by progressive candidate Nithya Raman in a runoff.

That said, it would be foolish to count O’Farrell out just yet. The Oklahoma native and liberal Democrat is a scrapper, and he has overcome long odds before—when he first ran for council in the 2013 primary, four candidates raised more money than he did. O’Farrell finished first in the race, then crunched a labor-backed foe in the runoff.

Even if the odds seems long, the five months until the November runoff is a political eternity. Plenty can change, and opposition research teams will likely be hard at work.

O’Farrell’s blast at Soon-Shiong shows that if he does ultimately go down, then he’ll go down swinging. If this is his opening gambit, then what unfolds in the next few months should be fascinating.

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