L.A.’s Barely-Discussed, Very Important City Council Contest Heats Up

Cityside Column: Finalists Tim McOsker and Danielle Sandoval could not be more different—one surged in the District 15 primary but now faces a scandal
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As Los Angeles lurches toward Election Day, most of the public’s attention is focused on the mayoral throwdown between U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and malltastic developer Rick Caruso. Other races garnering certain eyeballs are the City Controller contest that pits Councilman Paul Koretz against left-wing newcomer Kenneth Mejia, and the entertaining-as-heck sheriff’s race, with mercurial incumbent Alex Villanueva taking on former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

Meanwhile, four City Council races that have moved to a runoff are drawing considerably less attention and the biggest snooze of all is the match-up for District 15. The lack of discussion among district outsiders is understandable given all the other drama surrounding these races. Yet it’d be foolish to overlook this one, given both what is at stake and the differences between the two finalists.

Tim McOsker, the onetime chief of staff to Mayor Jim Hahn and part of an influential San Pedro family, surprised no one by finishing first in a field of four in the June primary. Yet he didn’t come close to gaining the majority of the vote many observers thought he would secure, and finished with 37.7 percent in a district where only about 19,250 ballots were cast. In spitting distance and onto the runoff is Danielle Sandoval, a resident of the community of Harbor City; despite being vastly outspent, she claimed 29.4 percent.

At the southern tip of the city of Los Angeles, District 15 is perhaps the weirdest-shaped of the many bizarrely drawn council districts. The landlocked neighborhoods of Watts and Harbor Gateway are connected by a pinkie-thin strip to Wilmington, San Pedro and the bustling Port of Los Angeles. Outgoing Councilmember Joe Buscaino once made an amusing video where he demonstrated how it can take more than two hours to get from San Pedro to City Hall if one relies on a bicycle and public transit.

Here’s the thing: The person who reps this area wields immense power. The 15th has about 265,000 residents, and like other districts, is large enough on its own to rank in the top 100 U.S. cities by population. The many Port-adjacent and marine businesses are vital job generators and contribute to the Los Angeles economy.

Further power comes from the fact that silly Los Angeles continues to have only 15 council members for a city of nearly 4 million—hence our huge district populations. While constituent services remain the thing by which most will ultimately be judged, each pol has outsized sway when it comes to distributing funds, propelling (or shooting down) projects, and casting votes on the city budget and other matters.

It is hard to think of candidates taking more divergent routes. During the primary, McOsker, who most recently served as CEO of the nonprofit AltaSea, spent $734,000. That was more than twice as much as the other three candidates combined, and over 10 times the $69,000 that Sandoval dropped. Although Sandoval filed papers to accept matching funds, which is free money the city gives candidates in an effort to level the playing field, she did not access any. McOsker got the maximum $161,000 in matching funds, allocated because he secured a set number of small donations from residents of the district.

The financial disparity seems destined to repeat in round two. In the initial reporting period, which ran until June 30, McOsker raised almost $106,000, which gives him a six-figure lead over Sandoval, who pulled in just $1,663. McOsker has already received another $40,000 in matching funds. New figures will be revealed next week.

The campaign machines are operating in different gears. Sandoval, who according to her website spent two decades in the hospitality industry and then helped start a firm offering low-cost legal services, has conducted limited community-wide outreach. Although she may be knocking on doors, during the runoff her official communications have been limited to five emails to district voters, according to City Ethics Commission filings.

McOsker’s team is far more active, with over 35 emails sent since the primary. These include posts that tout endorsements and chest-thump positive poll results. Others pretty please ask for campaign contributions.

Then there’s the endorsement game. McOsker has the backing of a battalion of labor organizations—including unions in the Port area—and the L.A. County Democratic Party. U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla is behind McOsker, as are six members of Congress. He also benefits from outside money—during the primary, independent groups affiliated with labor and business interests spent more than $300,000 pushing his candidacy.

All of that does not mean the thing is over and that McOsker can pick out a suit for his coronation. The Los Angeles Times endorsed Sandoval in the primary and then again on Thursday, which is a great thing to put on flyers and emails. Additionally, recent campaign missives mentioned her appearing at a San Pedro canvassing event with Mejia and progressive City Attorney candidate Faisal Gill. It’s a left-flank strategy.

Then again, the day after the Times endorsement, the paper published a story about former employees at a restaurant Sandoval once owned accusing her of wage theft; she has denied any act of wage theft and said she was unaware of the former staffers’ complaints.

As Nov. 8 approaches, more and more attention will go to the Caruso-Bass battle, as well as other council contests with candidates boasting big war chests. Still, when it comes down to sheer numbers, the District 15 seat is as important as any other territory. Ultimately it’s not money and endorsements that matter, but votes, and who figures out how to get them.

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