In just over three months, voters in California will head to the polls. In Los Angeles, that means more than just selecting a preferred presidential nominee. That’s because nearly half of the populace gets to choose a representative for the City Council.
Council members play a huge role in Los Angeles. They sit on influential government committees, help dictate policy and have a big say in whether major projects in their respective districts move forward. Each councilmember represents approximately 250,000 people.
This series is delving into some of the most interesting races, examining the candidates and the issues that resonate with voters. This week, it’s District 4.
About the District
As is frequently the case in Los Angeles, District 4 is large, encompassing 41 square miles; it’s an oddly shaped territory with jutting borders that look like they were drawn by a drunken sailor. The district includes communities and landmarks that seem to have little in common, among them Griffith Park and parts of Los Feliz, Miracle Mile, a slice of Koreatown, Laurel Canyon, and portions of Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks.
“The district is really in the middle of the city and encompasses many of the different elements of life in Los Angeles,” says Carolyn Ramsay, who worked for former Councilman Tom LaBonge from 2006 to 2014, including serving two years as his chief of staff. After running unsuccessfully for the seat, Ramsay is now executive director of the L.A. Parks Foundation. She notes that the district includes both Universal Studios and LACMA, and says that it has “significant cultural and historic resources.”
There have only been three council reps in the district over the course of 53 years: In the pre-term limits era, power broker John Ferraro held the seat from 1966 until his death in 2001, and the ebullient LaBonge was in office from 2001 to 2015. The current occupant is David Ryu.
In the Running
Ryu, the first Korean-American to sit on the L.A. City Council, won with about 55 percent of the vote in 2015, and could serve two more terms if he keeps winning. He got early notice for pledging not to accept campaign contributions from real estate developers, and has pushed legislation that would prohibit donations from individuals building big projects in Los Angeles. As happens with most council incumbents, he has nearly every major endorsement, including a battalion of powerful unions such as those representing police officers and firefighters.
Ryu faces a pair of credible, well-funded challengers in Sarah Kate Levy and Nithya Raman. Levy, a screenwriter whose IMDB credits include something called No Way Jose, is a Hollywood resident and president of the local chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus; she’s also on the board of the Los Angeles Library Foundation. Her website, which touts an endorsement from the no-longer-serving Congresswoman Katie Hill, also notes the backing of a group called Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles (pachyderms, not Republicans—they’re fighting for the L.A. Zoo’s elephants to be released into sanctuary environments).
Raman formerly worked for the City Administrative Officer, and recently served as executive director of the women’s rights organization Time’s Up Entertainment. The Silver Lake resident’s website notes that she has a Masters degree in urban planning from MIT. She addressed homelessness while working for the CAO, and an ad on her website proclaims that “It’s time for a rent freeze” in Los Angeles.
Ryu ran as an outsider in his first council quest, but a look at his fundraising, available through documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, shows that he is now the consummate City Hall insider—he has gobbled up an astounding $786,000; the next highest figure for any council candidate is District 14 hopeful Kevin de Léon, who’s raised $488,000, a fraction of Ryu’s tally.
Ryu not only has more money than any of his District 4 competitors, he has more than twice as much as all of them combined. Despite the oversized war chest, Levy and Raman are demonstrating the ability to raise the kind of cash that will keep the race interesting. Levy had pulled in $203,000 through September 30, the most recent period for which financial figures are available, and Raman had about $106,000. Collins has raised $35,000.
District voters should prepare to be inundated by slick mailers as election day approaches—that’s because Ryu has $590,000 in cash on hand, and expect him to spend all of it in the effort to score more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. But again, his competitors are in the game, as Levy’s account now contains $141,000, while Raman has $67,000 to spend. Even Collins has $31,000.
Homelessness is a priority across L.A., and District 4 is no different—according to the 2019 Homeless Count, homelessness in the district surged 53 percent in a year, and there are now 1,187 homeless individuals living within its borders.
A related key topic in the community is housing, and candidates are also building their campaigns on issues such as traffic and transportation, as well as environmental concerns.
Still, the geographic disparity and diverse communities make District 4 a challenging area in which to campaign. The district is also engaged, as demonstrated by copious business and community groups in neighborhoods such as Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake, Beachwood Canyon, and Koreatown.
“People in this district are smart. They are paying attention,” says Ramsay. “They are very protective of their neighborhoods and for good reason—their property appreciation is a significant factor for them. So it’s a tough job.”
What Happens Next?
Election day is March 3, so the 100-day dash is about to begin. Incumbent council members are almost always victorious in Los Angeles, but a shift in election dates to align with the presidential primary will likely mean a high turnout and could produce unexpected results. Then again, it might not.
If no one gets a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will move on to a November 3 runoff, which would mean eight more months of campaigning.
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