I don’t get my full question about mayoral polls out before Kevin de León scoffs. It’s not a rude or angry scoff, but rather one of those, “This again?” scoffs.
I’m not surprised. The District 14 councilmember bristled when the topic came up a couple weeks ago on the “Inside Golden State Politics” podcast. I ask him about the polls precisely because the ones cited a zillion times by media outlets, and those shared by rival campaigns, put de León far outside the top two. If on election day he finishes third, then his mayoral run will be over.
After the scoff, the veteran politician speaks clearly and intentionally.
“The majority of polls as of late have been misleading, and the majority of working Angelenos will be voting this week and on election day,” he tells me by phone on Thursday morning, before the start of a five-day campaign blitz that will run through June 7. I ask if he’ll share his internal polling. He declines, but declares, “I’ll say this: The numbers are much closer than people think.”
Is this private truth or campaign bravado? Most election observers would say the latter, but only an idiot would completely trust polls given what has spilled in the past. After all, most so-called experts had internally inaugurated Hillary Clinton before Donald Trump swamped her in 2016. And who in L.A. in 2018 gave vastly outspent Alex Villanueva even a remote shot against incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell?
This has to be an unusual time for de León. When he served as president of the California Senate, he was one of the biggest fish in a large pond. In representing District 14 on the City Council he oversees a territory with a quarter-million residents. Anyone who knows their stuff would rank him as one of the region’s most adept and strategic politicians. You’d much rather go to war with him than against him.
Yet when it comes to the mayor’s race, the spotlight has shined more often on billionaire Rick Caruso and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. Maybe it’s the polls. Maybe it’s the attacks those two have lavished on each other. Maybe part of it, as de León says when I press the subject, is because, “Mainstream media tends to not cover Latinos, unless there is a criminal element to it.”
Whatever the case, his campaign has garnered less overall coverage than the mall master and the Congresswoman.
De León has kicked against this since he launched his campaign last September. And he has, by some accounts, fared admirably. He raised more than $2 million in a wretched fundraising environment. He has commercials running on English- and Spanish-language TV stations; one of his spots boasts the unmistakable rasp of Danny Trejo. Independent expenditure groups have dropped $502,000 on radio ads, flyers and other material supporting him. He also has a batch of prominent endorsements, including the newspaper La Opinión, the United Farm Workers and the union UNITE HERE Local 11.
But a weird irony is at play. Just as coverage has somewhat overlooked de León, his campaign is built on serving a swath of Angelenos who receive little attention, particularly in a race dominated by discussions of homelessness and public safety. At campaign events and debates, de León always addresses his efforts to support janitors, gardeners and housekeepers.
“I know how working people are treated in Los Angeles. They’re the invisible,” he tells me, echoing lines from his stump speech. “They serve our food. They clean our streets. They manicure our gardens. They take care of our children and the elderly. They bag our groceries. And these are the people who I’m fighting for, and these are the people who I’ve been fighting for all my life.”
If de León is to advance to the November runoff, then he needs this crowd to turn out in force on June 7. This is where campaign strategy gets interesting—de León avers that many of his supporters are more likely to vote late in person than early by mail. It’s part of why, rather than burn money, his campaign kept its powder dry—on May 21 he still had $1.45 million in cash on hand. That’s not close to Caruso cash, but it is enough to wage a furious final battle.
“We’ve sat on our money, because we looked at the trends and the voting patterns,” he says. “We made a strategic decision to strike in the last two weeks of the campaign. We’re resonating now.”
Still, but how much can he resonate when Team Caruso has seemingly unlimited resources? By the time the votes are counted, the developer will likely have spent more than $40 million on his campaign, while de León will be lucky to reach $3 million. Calling it an uneven playing field is a colossal understatement.
This takes on added weight with the issue of homelessness. Caruso repeatedly touts a plan to house 30,000 homeless individuals, though with few details as to how he will accomplish that. Meanwhile, de León regularly remarks that he has gotten 85% of the unhoused population in Northeast L.A. off the streets.
It’s a big boast, but I live in the area and have seen the multiple tiny homes villages projects that have opened since he took office. And several long stretches of sidewalk that previously were thick with tents and trash are now completely clear, including one near a public park and a dog park in Eagle Rock. Even if it’s not 85 percent, the difference—for both unhoused and housed communities—is noticeable.
Again though, it’s questionable whether the achievement is being heard amid Caruso’s ad assault. I ask de León if he thinks voters are aware of these gains.
“Your question is, is my constructive leadership on the issue of homelessness drowned out by $40 million?” he says, and if ever a question was also an answer, this is it.
The councilman has plenty of swings ready for Caruso. He asserts that the developer’s 30,000-bed plan likely means putting people experiencing homelessness in large congregate shelters, which he predicts won’t be successful. He says that when Caruso crows about crime falling by 30% while he served on the Board of Police Commissioners, he ignores a similar or larger drop that played out in major cities across the country.
“That’s like taking credit for the sun rising every day,” de León says.
People have been casting ballots for weeks, and if de León is to prove the polls faulty, then he’ll have to finish ahead of one of the two presumed frontrunners. So I ask, who is he knocking out?
I don’t get a scoff this time. Rather, a kind of bemused laugh.
“I don’t care. I’m agnostic,” he replies. “If it’s Karen and me, beautiful. If it’s Rick and I, even better.
“I’m just working my tail off.”
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