Will the Crisis at Echo Park Lake Sink Councilman Mitch O’Farrell?

The District 13 councilman became the fall guy for the politically disastrous clearing of Echo Park Lake’s homeless camp. Now the blowback threatens his re-election.
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The 15 members  of the City Council tend to be overlooked by most Angelenos unless there is an election or a scandal. Mitch O’Farrell, who since 2013 has represented the 13th District, which stretches from Hollywood to the L.A. River and north to Atwater Village, blasted into notoriety in late March when the LAPD cleared a homeless encampment that had sprung up in his territory across the public park at the edge of Echo Park Lake.

How you interpreted the dispersal—captured by an army of TV and cell-phone cameras—likely depended on how you viewed the tent city in the first place: O’Farrell described it as a dangerous place where people had died, including an 18-year-old San Diego woman who overdosed on cocaine and fentanyl. But his take—and that of neighbors who said that the park had descended into unusable anarchy—was countered by activists who cast the encampment as a supportive community for some of the city’s 41,000 unhoused. It didn’t help O’Farrell that during the shutdown, scores of protesters were arrested and several journalists covering the proceedings were detained.

The fallout has been relentless. Protesters are a constant presence outside O’Farrell’s Glassell Park home, and he has been denounced by some activists as a “fucking faggot” at heated council meetings. Ktown for All, a community organization that supports the homeless, released a three-page statement demanding O’Farrell’s resignation, concluding that his “acts were not in good faith.”

“We saw the real transgression being the secrecy,” Dr. Robin Petering, the organization’s policy cochair, told Los Angeles, saying that there was insufficient advance notice of the park’s closure. She added, “Mitch represents the most progressive district in Los Angeles, and his politics really don’t reflect that.”

echo park lake protest
Activists march in support of the homeless living in Echo Park Lake.

SARAH REINGEWIRTZ, LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS/SCNG VIA GETTY IMAGES;

So how did O’Farrell, a reliably liberal politician with a record of supporting environmental and animal-welfare causes and the LGBTQ community (he is one of two openly gay council members) who last year helped direct $100 million in federal funds to renters, end up pilloried by Los Angeles’s increasingly vocal progressive crowd? And what does that mean for his political future?

O’Farrell maintains that there was no nefarious agenda in the clearing of the park. He says that in December his office contracted with the San Francisco homeless outreach organization Urban Alchemy, whose staff sought to build ties with park residents, warned them that the site would close for repairs and urged them to accept offers of housing. O’Farrell says more than 200 did so before the park was cleared.

“There was no secrecy, no lack of transparency to the actual population that we served there,” O’Farrell told me in early April. “So if some folks outside of the people that we focused on getting the help they needed want to squawk about lack of transparency, then they weren’t in tune with what we were doing.”

mitch o'farrell
O’Farrell at his election-night party in 2013.

LAWRENCE K. HO/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGE

It is an unlikely dispute, but perhaps no more unlikely than the 60-year-old O’Farrell’s path to this very moment. Born in Oklahoma to a Teamster father, who would bring back souvenirs from his truck routes to California, and a mother who worked as an administrative assistant, O’Farrell was a competitive gymnast in high school before moving to Los Angeles to make it in entertainment. In a 2012 KCET interview, he recalled how after arriving he slept on the floor of the Hollywood apartment he shared with six roommates, worked at a coffeehouse, and would meander past security guards onto studio lots. “I remember sneaking into MGM’s backlot and onto the set of Dallas and sitting at J.R.’s desk,” he said.

O’Farrell wound up traveling the world as a professional dancer on cruise ships—a fact Ground Game LA’s advocacy journalism project Knock LA has been sure to note. When O’Farrell returned to Los Angeles, he volunteered on the City Council campaign of a young Rhodes Scholar and college professor named Eric Garcetti and, in 2002, joined Garcetti’s staff as a field director, rising through the ranks. A 2010 city resolution commemorating O’Farrell’s 50th birthday playfully referred to him as “the type of character we welcome to Hollywood Boulevard” and noted that he “waited until he was a half century old to welcome technology into his life.”

After Garcetti was termed out, O’Farrell ran for his open council seat in 2013 and defeated a labor-backed candidate in an upset. A member of the Wyandotte Nation, a Native American tribe, he took the oath of office from Chief Billy Friend along the Los Angeles River. Four years later, he was re-elected in a race dominated by discussions of development.

O’Farrell has lived for three decades in Glassell Park with his partner, George Brauckman, and an adopted terrier mix named Speedy. Those familiar with City Hall say O’Farrell is likable and hardworking, if sometimes prickly. Whereas some council members  strive to set citywide policy, O’Farrell is described as more focused on matters concerning his constituents.

“There is no one I can think of who is more committed to his district,” says David Gershwin, who overlapped with O’Farrell in Garcetti’s council office when O’Farrell was a district director and Gershwin was chief of staff. Now a lobbyist and consultant, Gershwin adds, “He has lived it and breathed it for years. I don’t understand what the pushback is.”

Some City Hall watchers contend that O’Farrell’s public hammering is unwarranted and that it is unfair to blame him for a police decision to dispatch hundreds of officers to clear Echo Park Lake when the Centers for Disease Control recommends leaving homeless encampments in place so as not to spread the coronavirus. Others say that the councilman’s response to a mushrooming Echo Park crisis was riddled with mistakes—chiefly that he never should have allowed the tent encampment to grow so large in the first place, which all but guaranteed that fed-up neighbors would clash with angry homeless-rights activists.

O’Farrell is up for a third and final term next year. He has raised nearly $110,000 for his campaign (his closest competitor has just $11,000), and incumbency and political connections will allow him to haul in much more. John Thomas, a Republican campaign strategist who is not involved in the race, says O’Farrell has a “huge advantage” but that he would be foolish to coast. Nithya Raman’s surprise toppling of incumbent David Ryu in District 4 last November shows that the unexpected can happen. “You cannot dial this in as just a regular re-election—that would be a grave mistake,” Thomas says.

echo park lake
Tents in the encampment prior to the LAPD’s clearing the park in March.

Meanwhile, O’Farrell’s opposition is girding for battle. Petering says Ktown for All plans to release “grades” for council members and candidates, evaluating their homelessness and housing priorities and histories, and the message will be spread widely. “We find these tools to be really helpful for people who are newly aware,” she says.

O’Farrell professes not to be fazed, believing that, despite the barrage of negative press, his support has not withered. As we spoke, he ticked off a cadre of homeless housing projects his office engineered that are coming to his district. He also chastised some of his council colleagues and, while not naming names, suggested that when it comes to addressing homelessness, they are offering lip service.

“Some of us on the council are actually providing real results,” O’Farrell says. “Some on the council are just kind of talking a good game.”


RELATED: What to Know About What’s Happening in Echo Park


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