Eight Takeaways From the Special Election to Replace Nury Martinez

Cityside Column: The issues are big but turnout was paltry in last Tuesday’s special election to fill the District 6 council seat

For the past few months, Los Angeles political watchers have been laser-focused on the Council District 6 special election to fill out the term of its trash-talking former President Nury Martinez. The election was April 4 and now, with most of the votes counted, we know who has advanced to the June 27 runoff: Imelda Padilla, who was listed on the ballot as a community relations manager, and Marisa Alcaraz, a deputy to Councilmember Curren Price.

While that is the headline, there are other takeaways. Here are some of the important things to glean from the results, financial data and more.

Special Election Voters Wanted Government Experience

Seven people were on the ballot to represent the Northeast San Fernando Valley district that includes Arleta, Lake Balboa, Panorama City and other communities. Although none of the candidates had ever held elected office, four were total political outsiders, and three had some government experience: Alcaraz; Padilla, who was once a field deputy to Martinez; and Marco Santana, who had previously worked for Congressman Tony Cardenas and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg.

Those three finished first, second and third, according to the results released on April 11 by the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. Padilla took first place with 3,424 votes, or 25.7 percent; Alcaraz notched 2,819 votes, or 21.1 percent; and Santana received 2,523 votes, good for 18.9 percent of the returns.

None of the other four candidates exceeded 15 percent.

Even Amid Controversy, Voter Participation Remained Low

As April 4 approached, there were a lot of discussions about the potential turnout. District 6 historically has low voter participation — and a special election with nothing else on the ballot is a recipe for paltry activity — but the hope was that the attention sparked by Martinez’s racist comments in the infamous leaked recording would goose interest.

That didn’t happen. With the counting nearly over, just 13,506 ballots have been tabulated. In a district with 118,455 registered voters, that puts turnout at 11.4 percent.

This is a big ouchie for democracy.

In-Person Voting Is (Almost) Dead

What’s the most striking statistic from the election? Just 872 people voted in person — that’s only 6.46 percent of total voters! Everyone else used a mail-in ballot.

So if you want some quiet “me time” during the next election, visit a voting center.

Padilla’s Association with the Ousted Martinez Was Not Ballot Box Poison

Before the election, some people suggested that Padilla would be tainted by having once worked for Martinez.

It was a silly assertion, because A) No one should be judged by the antics of their former boss, and B) Despite her gutter-spewing talk, many district residents had applauded Martinez for her efforts to deal with neighborhood issues such as sex trafficking and illegal dumping. Someone learning how to respond to those matters from a councilmember should be a good thing.

Clearly, the Martinez association did not sink Padilla. It will be interesting to see if Alcaraz tries to make that an issue in round two.

Padilla’s Plurality Means Nothing in the Runoff

What does topping the field give Padilla? Some bragging rights, but nothing else. The Los Angeles political graveyard is filled with the tombstones of candidates who finished first in a primary and then faltered in the runoff.

In 2020, for example, incumbent District 4 Councilman David Ryu got the most votes in the March election, but lost to Nithya Raman in the general election. In last year’s District 11 contest, Erin Darling was ahead by almost 6 percent in the June primary, but Traci Park beat him in the next round.

A runoff is an entirely different beast: You have to start from scratch raising money, making people aware of the election and convincing them to pick you.

Money Still Matters in Politics

In elections, having the biggest war chest does not guarantee victory — and there are many local examples where the person with less cash but more volunteers and better grass-roots organizing finished on top. Just consider Eunisses Hernandez’s upset win over District 1 Council incumbent Gil Cedillo last year after she raised only about half the money he did.

That said, it’s always better to have more money than less money, to pay for everything from lawn signs to phone banking to meals for those volunteers. And, in this District 6 special election, the three top finishers had the most cash.

Alcaraz pulled in $161,000, and received another $94,000 in matching funds (money the city distributes to candidates who receive a set amount of local, small-dollar donations). Padilla raised $98,000 and Santana pulled in $89,000, but both netted more than $160,000 in matching funds. The result was that each of the three had about $250,000 to spend.

No one else raised more than $60,000.

There Was No Left Turn This Year

Progressives have fared well in many recent Los Angeles elections, and the superior organizing efforts of groups such as Ground Game L.A. have helped elevate candidates including Raman, Hernandez and last year’s District 13 winner Hugo Soto-Martinez. So naturally, many observers were wondering if a progressive could win in District 6, which known to be more conservative than others. (In last year’s mayoral contest, for instance, Rick Caruso bested Karen Bass in many of the district’s precincts.)

The third place finisher, Santana, was the most viable progressive candidate on the ballot and he had garnered the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, which has increasingly been leaning left in its picks. But he missed the runoff.

Both Padilla and Alcaraz are moderate Democrats, as was Nury Martinez. The district’s tendencies seem clear.

The Special Election Was a Win for the Police Union

Come election time, unions and special interest groups drop large sums on mailers, door knockers and phone banking for their favored candidates. These are “independent expenditures” (or IEs), which by law cannot be coordinated with a candidate’s official campaign. The L.A. County Federation of Labor and the apartment owners association are among the traditional big players; last year the hotel and restaurant workers union spent big on Soto-Martinez.

In this District 6 special election, the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters spent money to boost Alcaraz, and the Laborers Local 300 spent mony making digital ads (and more) for Padilla.

But perhaps the most impactful IE came from the Los Angeles Police Protective League: The pugilistic union, representing most rank-and-file officers, dropped $70,000 on mailers attacking Santana for opposing the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

An argument can be made that this expenditure tilted the scales; Santana missed the runoff by less than 300 votes. Progressives and anti-police activists seethe at the LAPPL, but the union’s moves could pay off big by keeping a pro-police officeholder in District 6.

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