As election day approached last March, David Ryu had every reason to be confident. Having defeated city hall veteran Tom LaBonge’s chief of staff five years earlier in an upset victory, the first Korean American member of the Los Angeles City Council approached his reelection bid with all the trappings of incumbency: people knew Ryu’s name and his résumé, which included advocating for homeless housing projects and combating city hall corruption. History was on his side, too. A Los Angeles City Council incumbent had not lost a race since 2003. He also had that most precious election commodity: a bulging war chest. While his two competitors spent a combined $829,000 on the race, the Ryu machine dropped nearly $1.2 million—more than anyone running for any seat on the March ballot in Los Angeles. On top of that, independent groups such as unions representing police officers and firefighters spent another $200,000 filling local mailboxes with slick pro-Ryu endorsements.
Yet when the final votes were tallied, political jaws hit the electoral floor: Ryu received under 45 percent of the returns, making him only the second council incumbent this century pushed into a runoff, which occurs if neither candidate earns a majority. His challenger? First-time candidate Nithya Raman, a self-styled progressive and a Harvard- and MIT-educated urban planner, who made up for a financial shortfall with an aggressive grassroots campaign that netted her 41 percent of the vote.
Although the nation’s eyes will be on the Trump-Biden battle on November 3, the Ryu-Raman face-off will likely have a greater immediate impact on the lives of the residents of the bizarrely drawn Council District 4, which sprawls from the San Fernando Valley to Silver Lake. It’s a race that reflects a more modern, diverse L.A., and perhaps prefigures the city’s political future. Traditional Republican-versus-Democrat contests have gone the way of the dodo in this overwhelmingly Blue city—this race pits a liberal Democrat, Ryu, against a challenger, Raman, who, in positioning herself to his left, brings a “Feel the Bern” surge to the proceedings. There are also shades of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, in a 2018 primary, shocked the nation by beating ten-term New York congressman Joe Crowley.
Once a shoo-in for reelection, Ryu was pushed into a runoff by Raman, a Harvard-educated urban planner.
“I do think city hall politics is becoming younger and more progressive,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University, Los Angeles. “In that sense, it’s not entirely different from what’s happening in New York with House elections. But there you’ve got long-term entrenched incumbents losing Democratic primaries. That’s not entirely what’s happening here, because you’ve got two relatively fresh faces going against each other.”
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles electoral system is in the midst of a sea change. The March primary marked the first shift from voting in odd-numbered years, when participation had long been embarrassingly low—just 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots when Mayor Eric Garcetti was reelected in 2017—to even-numbered years in order to align municipal contests with state and federal calendars. Turnout soared, from 24,000 votes cast in the District 4 primary in 2015, to 76,660 this year. Ryu, who emerged from a 14-
person primary five years ago with just 3,634 votes, this time claimed 34,298 ballots. Raman received 31,502 votes. (A third candidate, Sarah Kate Levy, notched 10,860 votes—about 14 percent.)
While the ravages of COVID-19 and President Trump’s attacks against mail-in voting inject an air of uncertainty into the election, the Ryu-Raman runoff could be even more competitive, as well as more challenging than the two candidates’ first race.
“The number of voters who will come out to vote out Donald Trump is probably going to be significantly higher than what we saw in the primary,” says Michael Trujillo, a veteran Democratic strategist. “There will be tens of thousands of voters that David Ryu and Nithya Raman are going to have to communicate to, which makes both campaigns more expensive.”
The Fourth district speaks to the absurdities of the L.A. councilmanic system. A 15-member council was established in 1925, and although the city’s population has since more than tripled—from about 1.23 million residents in 1930 to over 4 million today—the number of lawmakers hasn’t budged. The Fourth’s 250,000 constituents (similar in number to L.A.’s other 14 districts) is about two-and-a-half times the population that Mayor Pete Buttigieg presided over in South Bend, Indiana. The oddities are cartographic, as well. The district, which has had just three council members in 54 years (John Ferraro held the seat from 1966-2001, before term limits went into effect), was stitched together like a Frankenstein’s monster during the 2012 redistricting process. Today, Los Feliz, Universal Citywalk, the Miracle Mile, Griffith Park, parts of Koreatown, the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon, and portions of Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks, among other neighborhoods, are all jammed into the same council district.
Both Ryu and Raman face the challenge of trying to win over residents of these disparate communities. Raman’s path as an outsider building a community network to circumvent the system is the same one Ryu successfully deployed five years ago, when he was a rookie candidate seeking to replace the termed-out LaBonge.
Ryu’s primary campaign has been criticized by local political observers for being outdated and inefficient. For the runoff, he replaced his lead consultant and brought in a new campaign manager. “I did not do enough to let voters know who I am, what my story is, and reintroduce myself—especially to all these new voters,” Ryu says. “I let my record speak for itself, when in reality I should have spoken for myself.”
Although he has the endorsement of Garcetti and the majority of the council, Ryu hasn’t always jelled with his colleagues. He was ahead of the curve in seeking to prohibit campaign donations from real estate developers with projects before the city, but when he first brought the issue to the council floor shortly after being elected, he couldn’t persuade even one fellow council member to second his motion. Some reforms finally passed in 2019, but that was four years (and an FBI raid of Councilman José Huizar’s home and office) after he first broached the matter, and some of his most significant proposals had been watered down.
Ryu touts accomplishments such as creating green space in the district and opening homeless housing projects, which came as homelessness spiked in the Fourth and across the city, sparking anger in many communities. Since the onset of the pandemic, he has unleashed a torrent of motions proposing legislation that would, among other things, provide rent and mortgage relief to COVID-impacted Angelenos, help financially struggling artists, and crack down on party houses in the Hollywood Hills and beyond.
Ryu’s journey to this moment borders on miraculous. As a child in East Hollywood, his family was sometimes on food stamps. “I had to fight and claw to get here,” he says of a path that took him to UCLA and then to Rutgers to pursue a master’s in public policy and administration. He avers that his record makes him the real reformer in the race and points to his championing of increasing the matching funds the city provides to political candidates in an effort to level the electoral playing field. Ironically, the $302,000 that Raman and Levy together received may have helped push Ryu into the runoff. He doesn’t express misgivings for the position.
“You know what? I did not run for this seat to secure my job for 12 years,” he says. “That’s what the problem was. I didn’t want to become what I was trying to replace.
Like many in the coronavirus era, Nithya Raman is confronting a magnitude of multitasking—juggling Zoom meetings and campaign-strategy sessions with caring for her four-year-old twins. Running against a council incumbent is usually a Sisyphean task, but a global pandemic that forces a shift from securing donations at in-person events to online fundraising only makes the pitch of the mountain steeper.
Raman moved to Los Angeles from Boston in 2013 and settled in Silver Lake the following year. She worked with the city’s chief administrative officer Miguel Santana on a 2014 report that zinged the city for spending a preponderance of its homelessness funds on policing and enforcement rather than support and services. The issue remains a driving force for her, and when tent encampments mushroomed in her neighborhood, Raman helped form a community group to help those living on the streets. She views city government’s response to homelessness as a systemic failure in leadership. Raman, who most recently spent a year running the women’s rights nonprofit Time’s Up Entertainment, said her candidacy is less a referendum on Ryu’s record than her general dissatisfaction with city hall.
“On every issue,” she says, “what I saw was the same thing: The city has an immense amount of power to make change, to keep renters housed, to build more affordable housing, and to address some of our environmental issues with incredible urgency. And instead of moving on the things over which they had power, they chose not to act.”
Raman’s platform, laid out in extensive detail on her website, is her response to those frustrations. In conversation, she agrees that police shouldn’t be on the front lines of addressing homelessness. But unlike activists who have called for a sizable chop in the LAPD’s budget, she declines to specify how much she thinks law enforcement spending should be reduced. When asked where on the progressive spectrum she falls—and if she’s in the vein of Bernie Sanders and AOC—she deflects to her website, where the home page simply describes her as a “progressive candidate.”
Although Ryu outspent her by an almost three-to-one margin in the primary, Raman benefited from her extensive ties to grassroots groups such as Ground Game L.A. and Food and Water Action as well as endorsement videos from Hollywood lefties like Natalie Portman and Jane Fonda. The Raman campaign signs that sprouted across district lawns months before Election Day drew the attention of LaBonge. “They weren’t put out two weeks before the election by a sign company that puts them anywhere,” the former councilman says. “These were real people’s houses.”
“Whether Nithya knows it or not,” says Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo, “she’s building the equivalent of an L.A. Squad.”
Raman says that a 600-person “volunteer army” knocked on 83,000 district doors during the campaign, including those in neighborhoods with historically low turnout. The goal, she says, was to convince people that voting in a city council race is important. “That was our strategy, to say that people are already going to be at the polls; all we have to do is convince them that this race matters and they deserve better than what they’ve been getting.”
Raman’s neighborhood-powered campaign is precisely the strategy Ryu leveraged in his first election, and there are probably more similarities between the candidates than dramatic differences. Both are immigrants who came to the United States at the age of six—Ryu was born in Seoul; Raman, in India—and passionately profess the need to help marginalized communities. Both describe many years of work seeking to help homeless and impoverished individuals. Each advocates for protecting renters against eviction during the pandemic and stresses the importance of adopting forward-thinking environmental policies. Both rail against city hall corruption and want the council expanded beyond its 15 members. There is some consensus that the contest is a case of “Left and Lefter,” and that Ryu could be making a strategic error by trying to outflank Raman with progressives instead of shoring up his support among the more conservative constituents of the district.
No matter who wins, Sonenshein expects that grassroots organizing and funding in small amounts will play an increasingly important role in future ballots, and that a young and engaged voter base will benefit liberal candidates. Trujillo believes Raman’s campaign will inspire others and that her path could figuratively intersect with that of Ocasio-Cortez and result in a local version of “the Squad”—the boundary-shattering quartet comprised of AOC and three fellow congresswomen. “Whether Nithya knows it or not, she’s building the equivalent of an L.A. Squad,” Trujillo says.
All of which takes money. While Ryu took an early lead in the runoff, raising $114,000 through June 30 compared to $85,000 by Raman, documents filed Sept. 24 with the City Ethics Commission revealed a stunning reversal: Raman’s war chest now stood at $469,000 to Ryu’s $422,000, an unambiguous validation of Raman’s broad appeal and the effectiveness of her grassroots campaign. Still, for both candidates, there remains the epic uncertainty of voting during a pandemic, and whether “Get Out the Vote” translates to “Get That Vote in the Mail.”
There’s another reality, too: running for city council is not the same as actually serving as a council member, where, in addition to pushing progressive policy, there are constituents clamoring to have potholes filled and trees trimmed. Nobody knows that better than LaBonge, who in his 15 years on the council was a ubiquitous presence in neighborhoods across the district. He sees potential in whoever finishes first on November 3, but acknowledges that expectations for the office have radically changed. “Both individuals are very committed as to how they see the job,” he said. “It is different than how I did the job.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.