March 11, 2009
5th District Plays Big Role
The Los Angeles elections on March 3 turned out to be more interesting than most of us had expected, especially the role of the Fifth Council District.
The Fifth, which is a mixture of Westside (think Fairfax) and Valley (think Encino) is also the “Jewish district.” In a city that’s about 6 percent to 7 percent Jewish, the Fifth is perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent Jewish. It’s the best-educated district, and one of the most affluent. It has tremendous voter registration and high turnout year after year.
Of the city’s nearly 1.6 million registered voters, 167,668 are in the Fifth, more than 10 percent of the total. On March 3, the Fifth cast around 12 percent of all city votes, with only 7 percent of the population.
The Fifth played a pivotal role in the rise and dominance of the Tom Bradley coalition, as its voters provided massive support to Bradley. Combined with the African American community, the Fifth and other white liberal districts consistently outvoted white conservatives. The Fifth is one of the few council districts that bridges the divide between the Valley and the rest of the city, joining more liberal Westsiders to more moderate Valley residents.
Winning the Fifth District’s council seat is a big achievement, because there are lots of talented and ambitious people ready to run and mount effective campaigns in those two parts of the city, and anyone who wins becomes a prospect for bigger things. Think Roz Wyman, Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss, who is in the runoff for city attorney against Carmen Trutanich.
While the voters in the Fifth District are disproportionately Democrats, they can be very unpredictable on one local issue, and that is growth. When Bradley experienced a lot of political trouble in the 1980s, it was over growth, development and traffic, and much of this agitation was in the Fifth. The proliferation of billboards and city hall’s weakness in regulating them has energized another neighborhood rebellion today.
The race to succeed Weiss generated six strong candidates who split votes so evenly in the primary that the percentages looked like a box score on a night that the Lakers have everybody in double figures. Weiss has lots of defenders and lots of enemies in his own district on the hot-button issues, and he was charged with being too pro-development.
The two candidates who made it into the runoff, Paul Koretz and David Vahedi, are both critics of development and billboards. They are each likely to further activate the voters who are fighting growth.
With his early lead in fundraising and endorsements, Weiss contested the open seat for city attorney as if he were the incumbent. While he was able to preempt other strong candidates from challenging him, he also inevitably became the target of the anti-city hall sentiment that in this low-turnout election made its will known by apparently (pending the counting of some remaining ballots) defeating Proposition B, the solar power measure.
He came in first, but with only 36 percent of the vote, and he will face a tough runoff. And because the Fifth District is also going to have a heavily contested runoff, its turnout will likely affect the citywide result.
Ironically, Weiss’ best chance of winning is to expand his appeal beyond his own council district, where he has lots of active opponents, and draw on organized labor and other communities. He has to broaden the issues beyond development. If he does, he stands a good chance of winning. He did, after all, finish first in all but the 15th District, which represents Trutanich’s San Pedro home base.
Weiss’ best showing was in the three predominantly African American districts (Eighth, Ninth and 10th), where he polled 43 percent, 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively. He also polled 45 percent in the Latino and working-class First District.
These are pro-labor areas, where Measure B did well, winning 71 percent in the First and 71 percent, 75 percent and 67 percent, respectively in the Eighth, Ninth and 10th districts. He received only 37 percent in his own Fifth District.
The last Fifth District councilman to run for city attorney was Mike Feuer, in 2001, and Feuer’s situation was quite different. He was exceptionally strong in his own district, and he piled up a huge edge among Jewish and other white voters. But while Feuer had major labor support, Rocky Delgadillo pulled off the upset by linking Latino voters to a majority of African Americans.
Delgadillo also was bolstered by a late endorsement from Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters. This time, a number of African American elected officials are behind Weiss, while Waters endorsed Trutanich. It’s all consistent with the mix-and-match coalition politics of today’s Los Angeles.
Much of labor is in Weiss’ camp, as are the mayor and Police Chief William Bratton. Having apparently been beaten on Measure B, labor is likely to want to win a big one citywide to go along with the re-election of Villaraigosa and the election of Wendy Greuel as controller.
Trutanich has the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, both of which might be influential in a low-turnout election, and Sheriff Lee Baca.
There are two types of Los Angeles electorates, the one that appears in partisan, statewide elections in even-numbered years and the one that appears in odd-year municipal races. The May 19 runoff election is scheduled to be held in tandem with a special statewide election with ballot measures negotiated as part of the state budget deal.
Labor may or may not have some big horses in this race. So this election is a kind of hybrid, maybe bigger than a quiet municipal runoff but less noisy than a true statewide partisan battle. Most likely, the election will be decided not just by how people vote, but by who votes.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.