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Analysis

On Civility

As a widely watched City Council race comes to a close, two campaigns have articulated shockingly distinct visions of what Los Angeles politics should look like.

Before and after of a torndown hand-made sign in support of Nithya Raman, one of two candidates in a race that has become unusually contentious. (PHOTO: Hayes Davenport)

“I get this thing in the mail,” said Allison Cohen, publisher of the Los Feliz Ledger. “I really wasn’t out to write a story about this; but we get this letter with all these heavy hitters. And we’re like, okay, fine, we’ll look into this story, and the more and more I looked, the weirder and weirder it got.”

Cohen’s paper had just published a story that had, let’s say, made waves in Los Angeles’ most-watched election — the race between Nithya Raman and David Ryu for the District Four City Council seat — and I had called her to discuss the story and try to understand some of the choices that went into it. First, she said, I needed to understand what had happened the previous time her paper had caused a stir in the CD4 race, a couple weeks prior when the Ledger tweeted that it had received an letter from “34 residents” asking one of the candidates to denounce “social media rhetoric” on their behalf. People had wanted to know who those residents were and what exactly their concerns were, as the Ledger had not published anything else about this letter, or the letter itself.

“We needed to interview more people that signed that letter,” Cohen said. “And I’m like, why did they sign the letter? They send the letter out with these screenshots of tweets back from March — why? Why are they putting the letter out now, October 2nd? What is the precipitating event that started the letter? Who wrote the letter? We need more information,” Cohen recalled, by way of (at least partial) explanation.

As to the timing, that part was obvious. Cohen’s tweet announcing this mysterious open letter’s existence came immediately before a major candidate forum, and it included a tag of ABC 7, who streamed it. So its provenance mattered too: was it the case that a group of neighbors got together to write a letter to the editor about some bad tweets? Or was this more like a local politics October surprise, a bad faith attempt to change the terms of an unfavorable conversation in what had been, to that point, a pretty above-board election?

Cohen began to dig. “I started interviewing some of the people that had signed the letter, and I just started seeing a pattern that a lot of the people really didn’t know what offensive things had happened on Twitter, or on social media, to get them to sign this letter.”

“They didn’t know what to say,” she said, easing into an impression of how these calls tended to go. “‘Well, we’re just really upset. We’re just, thinking there’s a lot of bad stuff going on. We, we feel concerned.’ I wouldn’t stop calling all these people. I just I just kept asking the same thing: ‘Why did you send this letter and why in October?’”

In retrospect, the Los Feliz Letter — which has since grown in signatories and distribution, having been forwarded to several other local newspapers in the district — wasn’t some one-off tonal aberration but rather heralded the beginning of a complete metastasization of the race, the beginning of a bonkers October that would see a City Council race flooded with endorsements from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and tactics clearly drawn from national playbooks like the 2016 Democratic primary (Clinton’s) and this year’s bizarre general (unbelievably, Trump’s). Above all, a race that had spent the summer as a respectfully-waged contest over who had the stronger claim to the title of “progressive option” would get shockingly ugly, shockingly fast.

As the race Los Angeles Magazine called “a glimpse at the future of LA politics” comes to a close, an ocean’s worth of distance has opened up between the two candidates about how a campaign should operate and what our local politics should look like.

“So ultimately, two of the people that I spoke with — I finished the interview, I was like, Oh, and by the way, how did you get the letter?” Cohen said.

“‘Oh,’” she recalled the response, pausing for effect. “It was sent by the Ryu campaign.’”


§

The race between David Ryu and Nithya Raman to represent CD4 is, in a lot of ways, a gigantic step forward for Los Angeles’ democratic practicethe largest point of fact being, simply, that it’s happening at all. When Ryu received fewer than 50% of the primary vote, thereby failing to advance and triggering this runoff election, he was the first incumbent Councilmember to do so since Antonio Villaraigosa claimed Nick Pacheco’s District 14 seat outright in 2003.

That was the result of somewhat extraordinary — and extraordinarily different — circumstances: Villaraigosa had already spent over a decade building his profile in California politics, had already ascended to the Speakership of the California State Assembly, and was then coming off a narrow loss for the Mayor’s office, a position he’d eventually secure before the conclusion of that Council term. Raman, by contrast, has never previously run for any office.

One widely publicized explanation is that this year has been the first that Los Angeles’ citywide elections have been held in alignment with the national electoral cycle, a seven-years-in-the-making change made for the explicit purpose of increasing voter turnout. By that measure, a straightforwardly successful change, as cumulative turnout across the seven Council elections held this March increased by a staggering 221 percent over their 2015 marks. But something else was going on in CD4. The other six Council elections averaged around 45,000 votes cast. In CD4, there were 76,660.

That’s almost certainly because the Raman campaign emphasized outreach and voter education, mobilizing what campaign manager Meghan Choi described to Los Angeles Magazine as a “small volunteer army” of over 600 to knock on 83,000 doors in the primary.

“We had to teach people why changing local government matters, so our fundraising was half about who I am and what I want to do, and half about what City Council looks like, what it’s responsible for, and what it could be doing,” Raman explained in an interview with The LAnd. Following the primary, over the following summer, the Raman campaign released extremely detailed policy proposals — over 50,000 words’ worth — while creating support networks for people struggling with the pandemic, which inspired Ryu’s office to reach out and check in on his constituents as well.

It was exactly the sort of civic engagement pined for over decades by however many Los Angeles Times editorials that included the word “anemic,” and it’s probably a safe assumption that City Council campaigns morphing into mutual aid operations was beyond the wildest dreams of the 2020 Commission report authors — particularly given that their stated goal for changing the election dates was just to bring turnout levels closer to San Diego’s.

It was still an election, of course. There were, for example, corresponding KCRW interviews in which the two candidates sought to characterize their records and positions in contrast to one another’s. There was the #CopyNithyaChallenge, and microgenre of articles about the reigning narrative in the race: the question of which candidate was the true progressive.

Which is to say it was, if you can believe it, substantive. It was the sort of respectful, issues-focused election that happens when both campaigns believe they can win on the merits.

§

“If [@HotDogBurp] is a bot or a troll, then it should be really easy to condemn these words & tactics,” tweeted West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath.

This was October 13th, a week and a half after the letter that sought to associate Raman with impolitic tweets (i.e., as it was widely described, to Bernie Bro her) was raised by the Ledger. Earlier that day, Nancy Pelosi — the first in a trio of unusually high-profile politicians to weigh in on the race — had endorsed Ryu. From the Ryu campaign’s perspective, certainly a get. From the perspective of Twitter observers, who noted Pelosi’s recent track record in similar “progressive vs. establishment”-profile races, possibly a bad omen. The announcement tweet was quote-tweeted, in almost every instance with some version of that rhetoric, by 61 people. Of those 61 people, one went further and used language KNOCK.LA will not reprint here. As the writer Natalie Shure put it: “some random asshole with 40 followers named ‘HotDogBurp.’”

Horvath boosted @HotDogBurp’s language to her 4,500+ followers, adding: “The sexist, misogynist tactics & language used here remind me why I’m proud to support @davideryu for LA City Council. I certainly hope his opponent denounces this & focuses the remainder of the campaign on the issues, not on vile smears of our first female Speaker.”

It’s certainly possible Horvath decided independently to comb through every response to the announcement. Inarguably, though, her messaging was in alignment with the Ryu campaign’s, its hand-wringing around keeping the focus on “the issues” while directing attention away from said issues. In fact, it became the Ryu campaign’s messaging, because Ryu’s official campaign Twitter quickly retweeted Horvath’s post, the second time in two days he’d signal-boosted a third party’s attack messaging towards Raman. (Horvath’s 2015 campaign for West Hollywood City Council, the position through which she was rotated into the Mayorship of the city, was managed by Estevan Montemayor, who is now David Ryu’s Deputy Chief of Staff.)

The next day, Ryu’s campaign sent out mailers touting his endorsement by the Hollywood chapter of the National Organization of Women, which Horvath founded and until this past summer was helmed by a man, John Erickson, a close friend of Horvath’s. As reported in impressive detail by WEHOVille, members of that chapter have alleged that Erickson (who stepped down as president of the organization to run for West Hollywood City Council) used the organization primarily as a vehicle to further his own political career. The chapter members specifically claim that, among other things, he hijacked the endorsement process in order to engage in an endorsement swap with Ryu, pointing to the fact that the women’s advocacy org did not offer a hearing to the women running in either of the races in which it endorsed; that only Erickson and Ryu were ever considered.

The same mailer also prominently featured the logo of Planned Parenthood (in smaller text: Los Angeles County Action Fund), where Erickson is the Director of Public Affairs. Planned Parenthood Action Los Angeles County’s voter guide lists just three endorsed local candidates: Holly Mitchell, Scott Schmerelson, and Patricia Castellanos. A clarification request to Planned Parenthood Action California was referred to the county organization, and thus the work e-mail address of Erickson, who has not responded.

The mailer’s non-endorsement content was positive messaging around Ryu’s platform and qualifications. By this point in the month, that was becoming more and more unusual for his paid communications.

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“It’s like lawyers say;” said Howard Rodman, the past president of the Writers Guild of America West, later that week. “If the facts aren’t on your side, pound the law. If the law’s not on your side, pound the facts. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.”

In addition to trying to run against things not said by Raman or anyone associated with her campaign, Ryu was also attempting to run against things not done by her or her campaign. He had just begun running Facebook and Instagram ads claiming that despite Raman’s reputation as a grassroots-backed, no-corporate-money movement candidate, she was in fact taking money from oil and real estate interests.

Raman and her campaign declined to hit Ryu back on the topic, opting instead to use the attack ad as a teachable moment on local campaign finance: “Every time we do our quarterly reports, we look at every individual who has given us a donation, to make sure that they’re not involved with businesses that might be trying to seek influence at city hall. And when we find those conflicts, or potential conflicts, we give that money back, even before we file the report to the city.”

“With every single one of these,” she continued, “we caught those potential conflicts of interest and returned that money, even before we filed the report with the city.”

§

“You’re with DSA, right?” Cohen asked during our conversation. “I looked you guys up.”

I’m not — KNOCK is not — but I knew why she thought so.

“You’re thinking of Ground Game, the other group on those mailers. KNOCK is a project of Ground Game.”

While online & in the pages of the Ledger and the Larchmont Buzz Ryu was relying on surrogates to create insidious associations with Raman’s name, in the space where Los Angeles politics is most traditionally conducted — in mailboxes, unsolicited — his campaign was pushing these associations directly.

An image of a mailer that was sent to voters in CD4. (Source: ethics.lacity.gov)

Within days, he would upgrade “divisive radicals” to “groups that promote hate and violence.”

A screencapture of a fundraising e-mail sent by David Ryu (Source: ethics.lacity.gov)

This is what drew Howard Rodman to weigh in on the race. For him, this wasn’t just a shady political tactic — it was a painful resurfacing of a practice he never thought he’d see in Los Angeles.

“In the 1950s, when there were Senate Committees with Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn — who was as we know, was Donald Trump’s mentor — and a young congressman named Richard Nixon going around calling people Marxists or socialists or Stalinists or socialist sympathizers, all of these words were used to scare people into thinking that folks who had good ideas or folks who wanted to organize, or folks who were fighting for better things, must be anarchist, communist, Marxist, socialist, Stalinist sympathizers. And that basically, if you wanted to join a labor union, you were going to end up like the USSR,” Rodman explained.

“There’s a long history in the United States of what is called ‘Red-baiting.’ But it’s a tactic used by people on the right to discredit anybody to the left of them by saying –” here he paused for emphasis, before letting incredulity take over his voice: “‘They’re a commie!’”

“I can’t tell you how, to be candid, shocked I was,” he continued. “First shocked and then deeply dismayed that David Ryu, who would like to claim the mantle of being progressive, would do this. The idea of trying to scare the voters into not voting for a candidate who is promoting good, common-sense solutions to problems that we all have, by tagging them as being radical has a long and really terrible tradition in the United States.”

Rodman, who lives in CD4 and received one of these mailers, then explained why getting something like that in the mail was so emotionally affecting. For him — as for many Angelenos, and specifically members of the Guild over which he recently presided — red-baiting isn’t some abstract, historical concept.

“My uncle, who was an academic, was visited often by the FBI for his political activities,” Rodman explained. “And when he applied for jobs, the FBI would show up within a day to ask his prospective employers if they knew who they were about to be hiring.”

His timbre, previously educational and discursive — Rodman is a professor at the University of Southern California — had become serious. “I watched many, many friends of my family literally be unable to work under their own names. My father himself, who was a writer, allowed his name to be used by blacklisted writers who could not write under their own names. I grew up understanding from the people around me and understanding very deeply the cost to human lives and human possibilities occasioned by somebody’s saying somebody else was a Red. As a second generation screenwriter, and as a former President of my union, I’m deeply aware of the real human costs that are incurred when somebody points a finger and says, ‘That’s a radical.’

“So when I see a member of Los Angeles City Council pointing his finger at a candidate for his seat and saying: ‘This is a divisive radical,’” he continued, “every fiber of my being thinks back to the things I know from my real life and the things I know from the history of the Writers Guild. I can only think of the damage and consequences, intended or not, that stemmed from somebody pointing the finger at somebody else and saying they’re radical.”

I asked Rodman, given both his outrage and evident political awareness, whether he could recall tactics and language like this previously in LA municipal politics.

“In larger Los Angeles, not just the City of LA, but the County, I’m not aware of this kind of language being used, or even being thought of as acceptable,” he told me.

“Within the ways that candidates talk about each other, I’ve heard a lot of: ‘I can do more for you.’ I’ve heard a lot of: ‘I understand how City Hall really works. My opponent doesn’t.’ I heard a lot of: ‘Look at what I did when you needed your potholes fixed. I fixed them,’ which was sort of the essence of Tom LaBonge, who used to represent this district.” (Ryu secured his seat via an upset win over LaBonge’s then Chief of Staff, Carolyn Ramsay.)

“But I have never heard somebody try to call somebody out as hateful or radical or violent, or any of that. And I think really, it’s because people who have City Council seats are not used to being successfully primaried.”

§

So: “Internet Vitriol Taints Local City Council Race.”That’s the headline of the story that set this piece in motion, the one that got me on the phone with Allison Cohen. That headline ran against a screen capture of Raman at a January rally saying “I want you to get angry.” It quoted Ryu asserting that “this toxicity is not who we are Americans, Angelenos, and definitely not CD4 residents.” The rest of the Ryu quote:

‘“We’ve seen this so much in national politics,” said Ryu, referring to President Donald Trump, who he called the “Twitterer-in-Chief.”’

The social copy on the article affirmed that framing: “Supporters of LA City Council candidate Nithya Raman resort to nasty online vitriol, while some David Ryu supporters, including many heavy in local politics, want her to tell them to stand down.” “Stand down,” of course, being the specific directive issued towards the Proud Boys by Trump.

During our conversation, I told Cohen that I felt her article was overly credulous in asserting Ryu’s framing of the race. Cohen asserted that her piece was appropriately fair and even-handed.

“I don’t, I don’t think I said any of that, to be honest with you,” she told me. “I’m proud of the story. The story is about how ugly, national politics has come into a local fucking City Council race, okay.”

According to the LA City Ethics website, on October 17th the Ryu campaign began running paid promotion on Facebook of Cohen’s story, unedited, as a campaign ad.

“That’s the intent of the story,” Cohen continued. “To show that it’s been ugly, it’s been bad. It’s been ugly and bad since 2016, since Donald Trump was elected president. And now it’s here. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away.”

“If I had to write a nut graf,” she said — in journalism, a ‘nut graf’ refers to a paragraph that succinctly summarizes a story; in this story it’s the one about about how there’s “an ocean’s worth of distance” between these two candidates on what is acceptable campaign behavior — “that’s what this story is about.”

KNOCK.LA is a project paid for by Ground Game LA. This article was not authorized by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate. Nithya Raman is one of several candidates endorsed by Ground Game LA.