The Incumbent v. Challenger Battle: Gil Cedillo and Eunisses Hernandez Tangle in a Tense Council Race

Citywide Column: It’s a war to woo progressives for the District 1 post
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The Los Angeles mayor’s race, and the tens of millions that Rick Caruso is throwing around, continues to dominate the public discussion as election day approaches. But that is not the only important contest on the June 7 ballot. Voters in eight of the 15 City Council districts get to choose who will represent them for the next four years.

As part of a series, LAMag is looking at individual council races. This week, we turn to a sometimes caustic District 1 election, where incumbent Gil Cedillo is seeking a third term, and Eunisses Hernandez is mounting a challenge from the left.

 

About the District

It has been said before but bears repeating: L.A. council districts are ginormous, and the 250,000 residents in District 1 exceeds the population of cities including Spokane, Wash., and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The district runs at a diagonal, from parts of Highland Park in the Northeast, down through Mt. Washington, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Echo Park and Pico-Union. Landmarks and destinations include Dodger Stadium, MacArthur Park, the plazas of Chinatown and buzzy Figueroa Street in Highland Park.

According to documents used for the recent council redistricting process, 63 percent of district inhabitants are Latino, 16 percent are Asian, 4 percent are Black and 14 percent are listed as “other” (presumably mostly white).

A demographics analysis of the district put together by Beacon Economics found that, in 2016, the median household income in the First was $45,300, which was $9,100 less than the city average. The report found that 20% of area inhabitants 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree; that ranked 10th among the council districts, and compares with the 63.9 percent in District 5.

 

Representation

The First has been a stronghold for Latino representation, though it doesn’t turn over frequently—the past 35 years have brought only four officeholders. That included, in 1987, a then-rising star of politics named Gloria Molina. She served one term, bounced to the County Board of Supervisors, and was succeeded by Mike Hernandez. In 2001 Ed Reyes, a champion of L.A. River restoration efforts, took over. He served three full terms, and was followed by Cedillo, a former state legislator with a record of working for immigrants’ rights. Cedillo’s victory was part of a wave of council arrivals who had previously served in Sacramento.

 

In the Running

Cedillo grew up in Boyle Heights and laid the groundwork for a political career by helming a chapter of the labor organization Service Employees International Union. He spent 15 years in the state Assembly and Senate, and frequently boasts of having 100 bills signed by four governors; his Sacramento run was perhaps highlighted by the passage of AB60, which allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. He currently chairs the council’s powerful Housing Committee.

Despite his experience, his support in city elections has been soft. His 2013 win came with less than 52 percent of the vote. In a re-election bid four years later, he was pushed into a runoff by a vastly outfunded Joe Bray-Ali. In round two, ugly past comments by Bray-Ali surfaced, and Cedillo ended up winning comfortably.

Challenger Hernandez is a first-time candidate who grew up in Highland Park and often discusses working on efforts to find alternatives to jails. She seems skeptical of market-rate development and rails against gentrification—at a recent Zoom forum she twice stated that the Latino population in Highland Park has decreased by 10 percent. She touts campaigning for Measure J; county voters in 2020 passed the move to allocate unrestricted funds to community investment, youth development and other programs. However, a judge struck it down the following year as unconstitutional.

A third candidate, Elaine Alaniz, has attended several forums, but did not qualify for the ballot She is running a write-in campaign.

 

On the Attack

Cedillo and Hernandez have taken plenty of swings at each other. “There’s no leadership in the Housing Committee,” Hernandez charged this month in the Zoom forum. In a mailer, her campaign asserts, “Gil Cedillo puts big developers first, not us.”

Cedillo’s campaign has its own barbs. A recent mailer states that Hernandez “supports the abolishment of our police department,” and also that she “proudly supports the legalization of all drugs.”

Of course, each has ready responses to the attacks, and explanations of why their positions are more nuanced, but those don’t fit nicely into campaign bites.

 

Money Matters

Through April 23, Cedillo pulled in $457,000, far surpassing the $195,000 raised by Hernandez, according to disclosures filed with the City Ethics Commission.

Cedillo has a bevy of contributions from attorneys, people working in real estate, and other business professionals. Those who gave him $800, the maximum allowed in a council contest, include Dodgers part-owner Stan Kasten, as well as the team itself. He also got $800 from the political action committee for Planned Parenthood, and several labor unions.

While Hernandez has many $114 donations, which help unlock city matching funds, she also has healthy connections to Hollywood. Actors Rachel Bloom, Kristen Schaal, Casey Wilson and Samira Wiley all maxed out, as did Sony Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman. Jane Fonda gave $500. Hernandez also got $800 from State Assemblyman Isaac Bryan.

Other money is flowing. Hernandez got $161,000 in matching funds, while Cedillo received $136,000 in free city cash. The incumbent is also seeing huge backing from independent groups that, by law, cannot coordinate with his campaign. So far more than $700,000 has been spent on ads and paraphernalia either supporting Cedillo or attacking Hernandez.

 

Got Their Back

Hernandez has secured some significant endorsements. Labor icon Dolores Huerta is backing her. The Los Angeles Times endorsed her as part of its leftward swing, joining organizations including the Democratic Socialists of America, and Ground Game L.A., a grassroots organization that helped engineer Nithya Raman’s upset District 4 council win in 2020.

Cedillo, however, has the more prominent progressive endorsement, in U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Other backing him include District Attorney George Gascón, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a battalion of unions and the L.A. County Democratic Party.

 

Next Up

Mail-on ballots have landed at homes and many people will go to the polls on June 7. Though it’s theoretically possible that write-ins keep someone under 50 percent, it is highly unlikely. Expect to know a few hours after the polls close whether Cedillo has a final term, or whether Hernandez is a new face in council chambers.


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