Saturday, May 18, 2024

Council candidates could push L.A. City Hall further left

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Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell held a modest lead Tuesday night over labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez in the race to represent Hollywood, one of several contests that could determine whether a new crop of candidates will push City Hall further to the left.

The first batch of returns showed O’Farrell facing an aggressive challenge from Soto-Martinez, in a contest between candidates divided over police spending and the city’s response to homelessness.

Soto-Martinez, after viewing the initial results, said, “We’re going to win this thing.”

“We’ve seen the city get ripped apart by developers, police unions, folks who want to profit off of the city,” he said. “We’re trying to create a new way of playing politics that’s about solidarity, camaraderie, love — things that benefit all folks.”

In L.A.’s coastal neighborhoods, attorney Erin Darling was trailing Traci Park in the race to replace Councilmember Mike Bonin, who has represented the district since 2013. Park had promised a break from Bonin’s policies and greater enforcement of the city’s rules regulating homeless encampments.

“What I have heard from the voters across the entire district for the last year and a half is a desire to restore public safety, to address homelessness with the compassionate urgency that this crisis requires,” she said.

Darling, who was endorsed by Bonin, said he is optimistic about his prospects, noting that early voting results “tend to be more conservative.”

“I feel confident,” he said. “I feel good that an issue-based, solutions-oriented platform is going to win the day.”

On the Westside, early returns showed political aide Katy Young Yaroslavsky with a commanding lead over attorney Sam Yebri in the race to replace Councilmember Paul Koretz, who has represented Westwood, Cheviot Hills, Bel-Air and other neighborhoods since 2009.

In L.A.’s harbor district, attorney Tim McOsker had a decisive lead over Danielle Sandoval, an entrepreneur who has served on two neighborhood councils, according to early returns. McOsker said he focused his campaign on homelessness, public safety and efforts to ensure that services are provided equitably across the district, which stretches from San Pedro north to Watts.

“I want to extend my deepest thanks and gratitude to our supporters who put in the work to knock on doors and get out the vote across the 15th District,” McOsker said in a statement. “This is their campaign and their movement.”

The results could change significantly as mail-in ballots arrive at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk over the next several days. In June, Councilmember Gil Cedillo held a solid lead over community activist Eunisses Hernandez on election night, only to lose to Hernandez by a significant margin weeks later.

Once all the ballots have been counted, the winners could seek changes to the city’s handling of public safety, homelessness, housing production, transportation and other issues.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Los Angeles Police Department has lost 8% of its sworn staffing, about 800 officers. The new council members, scheduled to be sworn in next month, will decide whether to reverse that trend or allow the LAPD’s workforce to shrink further.

The new council members could also rework the city’s response to homelessness, changing or repealing the law barring tents from going up next to schools, day-care centers and other facilities. Soto-Martinez, Sandoval and Darling have been sharply critical of that law, although they differ on what the city’s next steps should be.

The council also will need to decide how to confront rising housing costs — and whether the city should ramp up approval of high-density real estate projects. Darling, Yaroslavsky and Soto-Martinez picked up the endorsement of Abundant Housing L.A., a YIMBY (yes in my backyard) organization that wants more residential projects to be approved “by right” — without council review or other discretionary decisions.

The next council is already expected to showcase sharp differences on policy, with Hernandez, an abolitionist on criminal justice issues, at one end of the spectrum, and Councilmember John Lee, an advocate for police, at the other. If Darling and Soto-Martinez win, they would likely form an alliance with Hernandez and Councilmember Nithya Raman, who was elected in 2020.

Yaroslavsky, the daughter-in-law of former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said she hopes she can help the two factions find common ground if she wins.

“My sense is that I’ll work with everybody and be sort of in the middle on a lot of issues,” she said.

The four council races come at a time of upheaval at City Hall, as elected officials contend with corruption scandals, a homelessness crisis and an electorate frustrated by rising housing costs. Since 2020, federal prosecutors have pursued criminal cases against three current or former council members, one of whom — Mitchell Englander, who resigned in 2018 — has pleaded guilty and served time in prison.

Former Councilmember Jose Huizar is awaiting trial on charges of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty. Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended by his colleagues last year, is awaiting trial in an unrelated bribery case that centers on decisions he made while serving on the county Board of Supervisors.

On top of that, three council members — Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo — were recorded having an incendiary conversation featuring racist and derogatory remarks. Martinez resigned days after The Times reported on the recording; Cedillo and De León are facing widespread calls to step down and have not attended meetings for the past month.

The release of the recording delivered a jolt to some of the campaigns.

O’Farrell found himself thrust into the role of acting City Council president, calling for the departure of Cedillo and De León even as he faced scores of protesters demanding that council meetings be halted. Soto-Martinez and his allies seized on the audio, pointing out that O’Farrell had been part of Martinez’s leadership team.

Darling also focused on the racist remarks, pointing out that Park, his opponent, had been endorsed by Martinez. Darling highlighted the fact that Park, an attorney, had represented the city of Anaheim in a case in which a city worker had been accused of using the N-word in front of a co-worker.

The leaked audio was not the only curveball in the city election.

In the race to replace Councilmember Joe Buscaino, the campaign of entrepreneur Sandoval was upended by revelations that she had been enmeshed in a wage theft case. Four workers had outstanding claims against Caliente Cantina, a restaurant Sandoval opened in 2014 in San Pedro and later closed.

Sandoval apologized several days after giving conflicting explanations about her handling of those cases. Nevertheless, she lost a number of high-profile supporters, including United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful union that represents instructors at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Minutes after the polls closed, Sandoval said she found that voters were hungry for change and want a representative who can “speak for everyone throughout the district.”

“They’re tired of the status quo,” she said. “They’re tired of being neglected, and they’re feeling their voices are not being heard.”

Times staff writers Jeong Park and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

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