Next week, one of the most consequential city elections of 2023 arrives. A caveat here: The electoral docket this year is wafer thin, and most Angelenos won’t weigh in on more than a neighborhood council race; a caveat to the caveat: Even if that’s the case, the special election on Tuesday, April 4, to fill the open District 6 City Council seat, is really important for a host of reasons.
Blame It on Nury
Los Angeles elections take place in even-numbered years, and normally at this time, no one would be thinking about lawn signs and get-out-the-vote efforts. Then again, no one expected a torrential audio scandal with City Council President Nury Martinez spewing all sorts of racist and hateful bile. The instantly infamous recording with Martinez, her then-Council compatriots Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and labor leader Ron Herrera, leaked online in October. Martinez was forced to resign within days—complete with the world’s worst I’m-stepping-down-but-I’m-still-a-role-model letter.
A Council seat can’t stay open for long, so the City Clerk scheduled a special election. So, here we are.
Plead the 6th
There are 15 City Council districts in the city of Los Angeles. No one pretends they all receive the same amount of attention or investment. Downtown and Westside neighborhoods get more resources. District 6, which covers parts of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, may be the most overlooked territory.
The district includes the neighborhoods of Sun Valley, Arleta, Van Nuys and Panorama City, among others. It is relatively poor, and according to a March rundown from the City Clerk, it has 118,459 registered voters. That is the third-fewest in the city. By comparison, neighboring District 12 has 170,000 voters.
While there is a lot of hubbub about the city becoming progressive, that is not the case in District 6. A Los Angeles Times map shows that in the November mayoral election, many precincts in the district went for Rick Caruso, not Karen Bass.
In modern Los Angeles, homelessness is a leading issue in every election. So it is here: According to the 2022 Homeless Count, the district had 3,228 people experiencing homelessness, with about half of these Angelenos unsheltered. There is also a large collection of people living in RVs and vans, as LAist recently reported. Voters want to know their next rep’s plan to deal with the crisis.
That is not the only concern. At a February candidates’ forum in Arleta, there were discussions of topics including sex trafficking, mobility and the impacts of small airports on neighborhood life. Unlike in many other districts, illegal dumping is a serious issue, as people from various neighborhoods exit off freeways, drop crap they don’t want, then speed away.
It should be no surprise, but after Martinez, transparency is a primary talking point, with every candidate seeking to convince voters that they are the ones who will be open, truthful and trustworthy.
This is one of the most unique Council fields in recent memory—seven people are on the ballot, and none have experience as an elected official. Still, a trio have worked in mainstream politics: Imelda Padilla, a community relations manager, was once a field deputy for Martinez; Marisa Alcaraz works for Councilmember Curren Price; and Marco Santana was in the offices of Congressman Tony Cardenas and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg—he is currently with L.A. Family Housing.
Also on the ballot are Antoinette Scully, a community organizer; Isaac Kim, who owns a men’s skincare company; journalist Rose Grigoryan; and business consultant Douglas Dagoberto Sierra.
Another four people are certified as write-in candidates—but none will come close to sniffing victory.
How Many Voters?
The corollary to the aforementioned low voter registration is that, historically, it is hard to get District 6 constituents to the polls. In the 2020 city primary, about 29,000 people voted, the lowest of the seven council contests on the ballot. In the previous election, in March 2015 (when city votes took place during odd-numbered years), there were—gulp—just 10,844 ballots cast.
How low can turnout go? An April special election with nothing else on the ballot diminishes the number of people who will participate. If there is a ray of sunshine, it is that ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters. Still, don’t expect long lines—or maybe any lines—if you head to the polls.
Cash is a factor in every election, but raising money becomes even more important when there is little public awareness of the contest.
Recent reports filed with the City Ethics Commission show three candidates separating themselves. Alcaraz has raised $156,000, while Padilla has $91,000 and Santana has $82,000. Padilla has also received $151,000 in city matching funds, and Santana has $116,000 from that pool.
Grigoryan has raised $43,000; the other three are all below $17,000.
Donations cover mailers, phone banks, lawn signs etc., and in a large district like this, all are vital. It’s hard to win just by knocking on doors.
Outside money is sometimes effective in Council races and other times, it means nothing. Still, you would usually rather have independent expenditures working for you than not have them. So far about $60,000 has been spent to push Alcaraz’s campaign, including funds from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. Padilla has even more support—$82,000, including a laborer’s union that has paid for digital ads (by law, independent expenditure groups cannot coordinate with a candidate’s official campaign).
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing most LAPD officers, has spent $58,000 attacking Santana, including a mailer charging that he “doesn’t support L.A.’s anti-homeless encampment law.”
Has there been sniping? Duh. Some swats have been taken at Padilla, mostly tied to her previous work for Martinez. That is ridiculous—knowing how a Council office works is a good thing, and Martinez’s offensive comments have nothing to do with anyone who once worked for her.
Santana has also been criticized, with the L.A. Times reporting that other campaigns were displeased with him posting door hangers that say he was endorsed by the Democratic Party; it turns out the L.A. County Democratic Party has not endorsed in the race, though some smaller Democratic clubs have backed Santana.
Next Up, Part I
How will this end? Good question. Early voting is underway, and tabulation will start after polls close Tuesday evening. But the 2022 election cycle shows that it could take days to count all late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots, and initial results can change dramatically.
Most people following this stuff don’t expect anyone to clear 50 percent, and if no one does, the top two finishers advance to a June 27 runoff. The general expectation is that two of the three better-funded candidates—Alcaraz, Padilla or Santana—move on to round two. Of course, general expectations can be horribly wrong.
Everything would change in a runoff. Two-person political combat is a completely different beast and will bring more money and big-time endorsements.
Next Up, Part II
Another thing to note: Whoever wins will have no sense of stability. This election is to complete Martinez’s term, which expires next year. A regularly scheduled primary takes place in March 2024 (with a November runoff). So the victor not only has to quickly learn how to represent 260,000 constituents and navigate the snakepit of City Hall, but also must be running for re-election, and raising even more money, on day one. Fun!
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