The recession isn’t being felt in Los Angeles municipal races this year as candidates and committees vying for seven City Council and four school board seats have spent $5.5 million to date, far outpacing spending four years ago when those same seats were up for grabs.
As expected, incumbents have commanding fundraising leads over challengers. Spending by independent committees, however, has helped to level the playing field in some races.
Independent spending is dominating school board races where two main groups—the teachers union and a coalition backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—are fighting for control of the board.
Such spending has surpassed $2 million, including more than $1.1 million in the last two weeks, according to the city Ethics Commission. Candidates themselves have spent only about $600,000.
It was a different story four years ago when candidates for those seats had spent about $1.7 million by this time and virtually no money had come from independent committees. What changed was a new law in 2009 ending unlimited contributions to school board candidates.
The $1,000 cap on individual donations shifted the big spending to the independent committees, where donations aren't capped, explained Jennifer Bravo, a city Ethics Commission analyst.
Independent committees have also been a factor in one City Council race. Police and other unions are backing nonprofit director Forescee Hogan-Rowles in her bid to unseat Councilman Bernard Parks, former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, in South L.A.’s District 8.
Parks has raised $263,942 compared with the $81,424 collected by Hogan-Rowles. She has benefited though from $625,402 in independent help from unions, much of that in the form of mailers, phone banks and fieldwork. The unions have also spent $170,842 opposing Parks. The councilman has been aided by $70,400 in independent help, primarily from business groups. Those groups have spent $20,000 opposing Hogan-Rowles.
Parks isn’t the only incumbent facing a determined challenger. In District 14, an Eastside district formally held by Villaraigosa, Councilman Jose Huivar has raised $366,607 and been aided by $62,341 in independent spending, primarily unions. Businessman Rudy Martinez put $200,000 of his own money into the race, bringing his fundraising to $272,809. A billboard company has spent nearly $25,000 to aid him.
In the central San Fernando Valley, District 6 Councilman Tony Cardenas has raised $165,707, about 12 times his closest challenger.
Another incumbent with a fundraising edge is Herb Wesson, who raised $211,107 in the South L.A.District 10. His closest challenger, Chris Brown, has raised $20,003, almost all out of his own pocket.
District 2 Councilman Paul Krekorian, seeking his first full term after winning the seat in a special election two years ago, has raised $68,443 compared with $10,935 taken in by his closest challenger, businessman Augusto Bisani. Krekorian’s district stretches from Studio City to the northeast Valley.
There will be no free ride this time for District 4 Councilman Tom LaBonge, who ran unopposed four years ago. The councilman, who represents a district stretching from Wilshire Boulevard to North Hollywood, has drawn two earnest challengers, but holds a nearly 4-1 fundraising lead. LaBonge has amassed $174,315 while contenders Tomas O’Grady and Stephen Box have collected $53,127 and $40,431, respectively.
District 12 in the West Valley is the only open council seat with the retirement of incumbent Greig Smith. The race has drawn 11 contenders but it is Smith’s chief of staff, Mitchell Englander, who leads in fundraising.
Englander has raised $477,738. Restaurateur Navraj Singh is next with $57,400 followed by business development specialist Brad Smith with $40,593.
There are fewer races in the school board election and the job pays only $2,000 a month, but it’s where the money is this election.
About $2.6 million has been spent on the four L.A. Unified school board races, with the lion's share coming from committees supporting or challenging Villaraigosa's candidates.
United Teachers Los Angeles—Political Action Council of Educators has spent $803,387 for District 1incumbent Marguerite LaMotte, District 5 challengers John Fernandez and Bennett Kayser andDistrict 7 challenger Jesus Escandon. The money has also gone to opposing District 5 challenger Luis Sanchez, the chief of staff to board President Monica Garcia.
Meanwhile, the Coalition for School Reform is supporting Sanchez as well as District 3 incumbent Tamar Galatzan and District 7 incumbent Richard Vladovic. The coalition includes a number of big-name donors tapped by Villaraigosa. It received $100,000 each from Casey Wasserman of the Wasserman Media Group, Megan Chernin of Chernin Entertainment and Zenith Insurance Co. and $50,000 each from producer Frank Marshall, investor Marc Nathanson and former Mayor Richard Riordan.
In District 1 covering southwest Los Angeles, LaMotte is being challenged by Eric Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, and Lynette Bigelow. The campaigns of LaMotte and Lee have spent comparable amounts—more than $30,000 each, but the teachers union has spent $436,085 to date supporting LaMotte.
Only two of the seven candidates in the West San Fernando Valley’s District 3 have spent money and Galatzan has a commanding advantage. Her campaign has spent nearly $49,000, about three times more than college instructor Louis Pugliese. But in addition, Galatzan has benefited from $361,800 in help from Villaraigosa’s coalition.
District 5, which stretches from Bell and South Gate to Los Feliz and Eagle Rock, is the only race without an incumbent after Yolie Flores Aguilar decided not to seek re-election. With seven candidates, three of whom getting help from independent committees, this is shaping up to be the most expensive race with more than $1 million in spending so far.
The leader is Sanchez, who picked up $494,130 in help from the coalition, and his campaign has spent $95,509. But UTLA put up $233,134 to oppose Sanchez.
Retired educators Kayser and Fernandez were aided about $162,000 from the teachers union.
In District 7 representing South L.A. and the Harbor area, Vladovic holds all the cards. He has received about $434,000 in help from the coalition and his campaign has spent $78,258. His closest challenger would have been teachers union organizer Jesus Escandon, who had $36,083 in help from the teachers union PAC. But Escandon dropped out of the race.
Of the nine ballot measures, six have drawn funding support or opposition. Measure O is getting the most attention with oil companies putting up $400,126 so far to block a tax on wells. The Committee to Support Measure O and P, the latter requiring the city to maintain an emergency reserve fund, has raised just $11,500.
Measure L is drawing hefty donations from supporters of the charter amendment to raise the amount of city money dedicated to libraries. Supporters have collected $129,754 to date, including $50,000 from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and $25,000 from philanthropist Eli Broad.
Councilman Eric Garcetti's group supporting the library measure as well as Measure I, which would create a ratepayers advocate overseeing the Department of Water and Power, has collected $3,099 in donations.
Supporters of Measure H, which would bar bidders on city contracts over $100,000 from contributing to candidates for city offices, have raised $19,736. Measure M, which would tax marijuana dispensaries, is supported by $5,000 from a union representing social workers.