Who’s Getting Money from Whom? A Closer Look at the Huge Fundraising Hauls in Notable L.A. Races

Big races mean big fundraising tallies. Here’s a rundown of some of the jaw-dropping financial figures in local political races
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Election ballots won’t be tabulated until next week, but for local politics watchers, there is already something to count: the money haul.

Astounding sums are being spent on local races, ensuring that City Council, LAUSD School Board and other battles will not be submerged under the flood of pro and con ballot proposition ads that filled seemingly every World Series commercial slot.

It’s worth noting that money is only the second most important thing on Election Day—following actual votes—and while a hefty war chest makes campaigning easier, Los Angeles has seen plenty of instances in which the better-financed competitor face-planted with voters.

Here’s a rundown of some local fiscal highlights as Election Day approaches.


Fourth District Flip-Flop

The District 4 race between incumbent David Ryu and challenger Nithya Raman is the most exciting City Council contest Los Angeles has seen in decades, with the progressive challenger garnering more than 41 percent of the vote in the March primary and pushing the liberal office holder (who generated about 45 percent) into a runoff. That came despite Ryu raising more than $1 million in the primary to Raman’s $272,000 (a third candidate, Sarah Kate Levy, raised $253,000).

Now the financial tide has turned, and Raman has outraised Ryu. According to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, by October 17 Raman had pulled in $645,000, surpassing Ryu’s $536,000. In L.A., challengers outraise incumbents just about never.

 

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Digging Deeper: While Raman has raised more money than Ryu, the tallies for the two competitors are close enough that predicting a winner based on cash patterns is impossible. By October 17, Ryu had outspent Raman $546,000 to $438,000, with both candidates going big on mailers, web ads, and a battalion of campaign consultants.

Raman’s $375,000 in cash on hand is about twice as much as Ryu had to spend with approximately two weeks until election day, but there’s a question as to how much that late advantage matters when so many people are voting early by mail.

 

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Charting the Check Writers: Both candidates are getting financial support from a variety of backers, a testament to their respective wide bases. But there are notable differences.

Raman is getting big money from an entertainment industry crowd that normally shrugs off local elections. Perusing her campaign contributions reveals $800 donations (the maximum individual amount) from Jane Fonda, Holly Hunter, and Lisa Henson, the president and CEO of the Jim Henson Company. Director Jason Reitman gave $600, and Raman has $200 from Lily Tomlin. Her most interesting $800 comes from Weekend Update host Colin Jost, leading one to wonder if he and Michael Che will do a Ryu-Raman bit on the next Saturday Night Live. Yeah, probably not.

Ryu’s contributions are, on average, larger than Raman’s, and his coffers include $800 donations from a coterie of unions. Ryu, the first Korean American to serve on the council, has received extensive financial support from members of the Asian-American community, and his financial disclosures also reveal donations from numerous Hollywood executives. Additionally, he has $800 checks from actor George Takei, former City Controller Wendy Greuel, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and Pink’s Hot Dogs owner Richard Pink.


Tally in the Tenth

The other City Council race with a runoff is the District 10 seat, where Herb Wesson is termed out. Current County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas finished first in the March primary with 44.3 percent, far outdistancing attorney Grace Yoo, who claimed 23.6 percent.

As happened in round one, Ridley-Thomas, with connections built over three decades in politics, is outraising and outspending Yoo. By October 17 he had pulled in $607,000 to her $236,000, and the $572,000 he dropped dwarfs her $299,000. Yoo also has received $189,000 through the city matching funds program; Ridley-Thomas rejected the municipal money.

Not only is Ridley-Thomas spending bigger, he is spending faster; on October 17, Yoo had $127,000 in cash on hand to his $46,000. As with the District 4 race, it’s uncertain how important that advantage is given the preponderance of early voting.

 

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Digging Deeper: Yoo’s donations tend to be in smaller dollar amounts than those supporting Ridley-Thomas, and like Ryu, she has ample backing from members of the Asian-American community. Yoo also boasts checks from some former City Hall power players: Ex-councilmembers Jan Perry and Bernard Parks have donated to her campaign, as did former City Controller Laura Chick.

 

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Ridley-Thomas’s backers reflect a diverse spectrum of Los Angeles, from attorneys and physicians to figures working in the field of homeless services. His $800 supporters include Metro CEO Phil Washington, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, business legend David Geffen, and film director J.J. Abrams. Another $800 came from food delivery giant Postmates; there’s no telling if the check was delivered along with a meal.


A Sense of VictorIE

While individuals in city races are limited to writing that $800 check, unaffiliated political action committees can spend unlimited amounts, as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate’s official campaign. That’s where the really big money flows, with special interest groups paying for slick mailers, phone banking and digital ads.

In District 4, $480,000 in independent expenditures, or “IE” money, has been spent supporting Ryu, while Raman has seen just $12,000 directed her way. PACs affiliated with unions are his biggest supporters, including the American Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and the organization representing most city firefighters.

The IEs are even grander in the District 10 contest, where $727,000 has been spent on Ridley-Thomas’ behalf, with the American Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO also being his highest-spending supporter. Another $164,000 has gone to mailers hammering Yoo, including one charging that her “political agenda” has worsened the city’s homelessness crisis.


DAs and Dollars

The race for Los Angeles County District Attorney isn’t just one of the most attention-generating match-ups in the region, it is also one of the deepest funded. The Los Angeles Timessuperb tracking of the contest reveals that a whopping $14 million has been raised, with $6.8 million backing Lacey, who is seeking her third term, and $7.3 million benefitting Gascón, the former San Francisco DA Much of the money is in the form of IEs from PACs with a vested interest in having their preferred candidate in charge of the nation’s largest public law office.

 

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Lacey, who finished first in the March primary, but fell just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, is seeing support from a phalanx of law enforcement unions, with the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, and the L.A. Police Protective League all dropping seven figures on her behalf. Other unions up and down the state have also donated.

 

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Gascón is a darling of criminal justice reform advocates. In addition to grabbing key endorsements from people who previously supported Lacey (including Mayor Eric Garcetti), he is the beneficiary of $1.5 million from George Soros and approximately the same amount from Patty Quillin, the wife of Netflix head Reed Hastings, according to the Times database. Other wealthy individuals are also backing his campaign.

The big money ensures that Lacey and Gascón ads will keep airing until polls close on Election Day.


School-Board Avalanche

While the council race spending raises eyebrows, it’s just a proverbial drop in a whale-sized bucket compared to what’s happening in a pair of school board races. Entities affiliated with charter schools and teachers’ unions have traditionally gone to war supporting candidates for these posts, and that’s the case again.

In the LAUSD District 3 race, Marilyn Koziatek, seen as a charter-friendly candidate, has raised $107,000, slightly more than the $99,000 pulled in by incumbent Scott Schmerelson (who is allied with union interests).

However, more than $3.5 million has been spent on Koziatek’s behalf by IE groups, with over half of that on ads opposing Schmerelson. This includes TV commercials slamming the incumbent.

IE groups have spent $469,000 backing Schmerelson, which would be impressive if not for the side being outspent by a 7:1 ratio.

The situation is similar in the LAUSD District 7 race, where Patricia Castellanos (favored by teachers unions) has raised $151,000 and Tanya Ortiz Franklin (backed by charter groups) has $128,000. However, IE spending already has surged to more than $3.6 million; the lion’s share has gone to benefit Ortiz Franklin.

Altogether, between the March primary and the current runoff, $15.2 million has been spent on the two LAUSD school board races. A full-time board member, by the way, earns $125,000 a year.


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