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What’s in a Vote? How Low Voter Turnout in L.A. Rewarded Garcetti, O’Farrell

In a not so distant future, beyond the year of the pandemic, one might hope that the politics just before this extraordinary year won’t be easily forgotten by our cities and their leadership, in order for us to avoid a simple repetition of the past. Here’s a brief look back at some of that recent past, then, analyzing a handful of numbers and some change.

On May 21st, 2013, in a runoff election with a former L.A. City Controller, Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti was elected to the Mayor’s office by 222,300 votes. Those votes were won out of nearly 1.8 million registered voters in the city of Los Angeles in 2013, making it so that he was originally elected by just 12.3% of L.A.’s electorate.

For Garcetti’s original election bid in the mayoral primary race, contributions or donations to his campaign amounted to more than $8.7 million dollars, making him the most expensive candidate in the race by a considerable margin. Wendy Greuel, on the other hand, came in second place for contributions with more than $7.3 million. The third-in-place candidate in the original primary race, Jan Perry, raised $1.6 million. Thus, the 2013 race was a battle of the millions, where the most millions got the most hundreds of thousands of votes, or in Garcetti’s case, 34,691 more votes than Greuel in the runoff to place him over the top.

Four years later, on March 7th, 2017, Garcetti was reelected to the Mayor’s office by 331,310 votes. This was nearly 110,000 more votes than what he received when he first ran for the mayor’s office; but by 2017, the city of L.A.’s voter registration had grown by a few hundred thousand, from 1.8 million registered voters in 2013 to more than 2 million in 2017. Therefore, Garcetti’s 331,310 votes were won from a pool of over 2 million eligible voters, and so he was officially reelected to the mayor’s office by just 16.3% of L.A.’s electorate.

In contrast to Garcetti’s close runoff for the Mayor’s seat in 2013, reelection four years later was a quick and painless walk through hyper-policed Grand Park. While Garcetti raised less than half of what he did four years prior, with $3.8 million reported to the L.A. Ethics Commission, his reelection campaign had more than eight times the fundraising of the second-place candidate’s, Mitchell Schwartz, a first-time candidate for public office and former communications director who raised $463,000 for his run. The third-in-place candidate for the 2017 Mayoral Election, Steve Barr, raised less than $21,000 for the race.

In turn, even if Schwartz and Barr had combined their totals in 2017, they would still have needed to multiply their fundraising by almost eight times over to come close to the “screen time,” or media coverage, afforded by Garcetti’s $3.8 million. As the Times put it when Schwartz first launched his campaign:

“With no endorsements and lacking exposure, the question is whether Schwartz’s low-profile campaign can affect Garcetti, who unrolled his own campaign TV spots last week.”

Adding in low voter enthusiasm for the race, or even awareness that there was a race at the time, reelection was a smooth, if inconspicuous operation. Garcetti defeated Schwartz, who became the mayor’s closest opponent, by a decisive 298,082 votes, or nine times what Schwartz garnered.

Garcetti’s rise to the Mayor’s office in L.A. also took place at the same time that another city “insider” decided to go for the big screen. As the Mayor-elect prepared to leave his old “Hollywood” district, or the vicinity of East Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park and more, a former staffer of his, Mitch O’Farrell, ran to replace him.

On May 21st, 2013, in a runoff election with union-backed John Choi, Mitch O’Farrell was originally elected to office for Council District 13 by 13,940 votes, defeating Choi by only 1,455 votes. This result was from a pool of 106,061 registered voters in District 13 in 2013, according to the L.A. City Clerk, making it so O’Farrell was originally elected by just 27% of “The Hollywood District’s” electorate, which was still twice the rate of Garcetti’s vote percentage for 2013, not that anyone is keeping score.

In O’Farrell’s original 2013 bid for the 13th District, contributions to his campaign amounted to just over $490,000. But at that time, O’Farrell’s primary opponent, John Choi, raised over $700,748. In other words, as the Times pointed out, at that point, O’Farrell was more of the “underdog” for the win given his opponent’s larger fundraising. Nonetheless, O’Farrell took the seat despite being outmatched, even if by the slim margin of less than 1,500 votes. The third-in-place candidate for the race, Matt Szabo, raised slightly over $174,000. Had Szabo “lent” his fundraising totals to Choi back in 2013, then, it might be Choi dodging questions about the rise of homelessness in the 13th district right now, which has climbed to nearly 4,000 by last count, according to LAHSA.

Four years later, on March 7th, 2017, O’Farrell was reelected to office for Council District 13 with 17,053 votes. While this was over 3,100 more votes than what he garnered when he first ran, as it was the case for his predecessor, those votes were from an expanded pool of voters in the 13th district at 119,832 registered voters in 2017, according to the L.A. County Registrar. Thus, O’Farrell’s larger vote tally was actually smaller than it might seem at first, and so he was officially reelected as L.A. City Council member for District 13 by only 14.2% of the district’s electorate.

Similarly to Garcetti, in 2017, O’Farrell’s lackluster reelection percentage was just as indicative of low voter engagement as his election from four years prior.

O’Farrell’s reelection bid, like Garcetti’s, was also less costly than his original campaign, but far and away from the opposition in terms of fundraising.

In 2017, when O’Farrell sought his reelection for the 13th district, he raised slightly over $425,000, according to the L.A. Ethics Commission. While this sum was smaller than his original fundraising amounts back in 2013, by then O’Farrell’s name was literally and figuratively embedded in L.A. “officialdom” following four years in office; the simple fact that his name was on the ballot, that it was recognizable, and that low voter engagement was essentially guaranteed acted like insurance policies; O’Farrell defeated his closest opponent in 2017, a local tenants rights activist and first time candidate, Silvie Shain, by 12,715 votes.

Shain raised up to $35,967 for her challenge to O’Farrell’s incumbency in 2017, while the third-in-place candidate, Jessica Salans, raised only $15,197. As a result, even if Shain and Salans had combined their fundraising totals, they would still have needed to multiply their amount more than eight times to come close to O’Farrell’s screen-time or media coverage, an order that would prove massive to most L.A. City Hall “outsiders,” or the majority of working-class people in Los Angeles, especially considering that much of the early year in 2017 was spent processing the election of a talk show host into the white house.

But what if these are just anomalies? What about other districts in L.A., one might say?

Consider that in the same year that Garcetti and O’Farrell won their current seats, Nury Martinez, a former LAUSD Board Representative out of the East San Fernando Valley district, also fended off a larger fundraising pool belonging to her opponent at the time, Cindy Montañez, a former Assembly member and adviser to the LADWP.

In a June 2013 special election for District 6, Martinez won by 4,917 votes compared to Montañez’s 4,093 votes, even while Montañez had almost twice Martinez’s sum in campaign contributions at nearly $600,000. This tally was drawn from a pool of about 89,118 eligible voters in District 6, meaning that Martinez was elected to the seat in 2013 by just 10.2% of her district’s electorate.

Two years later, when Martinez ran for the seat again in a primary election on March 3rd, 2015, it was her turn to play the favorite. In a rematch with Montañez, Martinez’s fundraising amount was almost triple that of her opponent’s at just under $300,000. Martinez’s name recognition as the incumbent and her larger fundraising pool acted as buffers. She won the seat by 6,625 votes, compared to Montañez’s 4,219 in an election where just 8.6% of L.A.’s registered voters participated.

And five years later, by March 03, 2020, in the Presidential Primary Election, Martinez sought her second full term for the 6th district seat, and once again raised just under $300,000 for her bid; by then, however, this amount was over 48 times the sum of that of the second-in-place challenger, Benito B Bernal. Martinez catapulted through the primary with 21,126 votes to Bernal’s 4,580, while a third-in-place candidate, Bill Haler, accrued only 3,698 votes and did not register any fundraising amount with the L.A. Ethics Commission.

Clearly, cases like these suggest that “money in politics” in terms of campaign contributions, combined with low voter engagement in L.A., at least during the last 10 years, have worked well for Garcetti, O’Farrell, and even Martinez. And while theirs make for just a few seats at L.A. City Hall out of 15 council seats and various other offices to which figures are elected, it’s unlikely that any other seats or offices fared better in terms of voter engagement and “outsider” candidates’ fundraising given the city of L.A.’s generally low voter enthusiasm for elections since at least 2013.

What’s also true is that while in O’Farrell’s and Martinez’s original elections their opponents had the larger war chests, it would be difficult for either of their offices to argue that low voter engagement in their districts did not create a fine line for their opponents to walk in their discretion of those larger funds. Somewhere along the way, both Choi’s and Montañez’s campaigns in 2013 mismanaged their larger fundraising pools and lost a couple of hundred to a thousand votes, tipping the scales in their opponents’ favor. But neither Choi nor Montañez were complete outsiders, either. Choi was a former L.A. City Commissioner and had the backing of the L.A. Federation of Labor; Montañez was a formerly elected official in the SFV who also had the backing of the notorious LADWP.

The data also suggests that once certain names or figures, perhaps especially those of “insiders,” break through to claim seats at City Hall, campaign contributors tend to fall right in line to keep them there during the next election cycle. Consider for example that at start of the races, during the primaries, it was generally long-time L.A. City Hall insiders like Garcetti, Greuel, O’Farell, Choi and Montañez who benefited the most in terms of donations to their campaigns. This was likely due to their “experience” in public office, while “outsiders” or activists definitely struggled to so much as consider matching insider fundraising rates to pose a serious challenge to their “establishment” candidacies.

Moreover, because donors to insiders’ campaigns tend to include real estate agencies, developer corporations, and groups such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League, it’s not hard to see how such donations–at a minimum–place the concerns of these groups ahead of those in the electorate who are unable to curry such favors. In L.A., there are not many bus drivers, nannies, cooks, teachers, and/or long-time small business owners such as Don Pedro Avila of the historic El Gran Burrito in East Hollywood, who can make campaign contributions to the tune of hundreds of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands, for local elected officials during election cycles.

Given this model, it’s of little surprise that in the decade before the pandemic, L.A.’s political engagement was growing exceedingly more disaffected, with less and less registered voters participating in elections each year. The city’s professionals, including at The L.A. Times and other media outlets pointed this out, though to generally little fanfare. A point generally less discussed by most of L.A.’s media outlets, however, has been the way in which races like these suggest that working class people, or “outsiders” tend generally not to stand even a chance against insiders for political offices.

All of these things collude to make the sudden, record-breaking engagement with elections all over the U.S. after widespread upheaval this summer against police violence and a pandemic which has cost millions of people their jobs, all the more extraordinary. In fact, just next door to East Hollywood, in the Los Feliz neighborhood, there’s suddenly a very tight race for the 4th district seat between Nythia Raman, an Urban Planner and activist running for the first time for public office and incumbent David Ryu. Turnout of the vote for the 4th district seat, along with turnout for the presidential election itself in L.A. county, has already beaten records this 2020.

A key question is then: how long does a surge in voter engagement with the electoral process hold after November 3rd this year?

And more specifically, just who is it that will have the time to remain more engaged once the pandemic levels out and it’s time for people to return to work?

Moreover, if this sudden engagement from previously uninterested voters holds over at least the next two years, it will be fascinating to watch how some of our officials, particularly those insiders, plan to hold out against a massive new well of citizens scrutinizing their roles in the city’s increasingly neglected conditions, not to mention how they’ll perform versus “outsiders” like Nythia Raman entering L.A. City Hall. A swing of the pendulum may, at last, be in order for working-class people and the needs of their communities.

J.T.

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J.T.

Born and raised in the Los. Los Cuentos. J.T.

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