Los Angeles City Council District 12 made waves across the state, and even got picked up by the national press. It was a hard story line to ignore: a progressive political novice bested a career politico in a crowded primary to go head to head in a run off in almost direct opposition on every issue.
Dr. Loraine Lundquist is a professor at California State University Northridge (CSUN) where she teaches sustainability and climate issues. A valley resident with a family and a recent turn to activism in the wake of the Aliso Canyon disaster.
John Lee was a staffer to recently retired Councilmember Mitch Englander. His career in City Hall and local politics had taken him to the heights of local power, then tossed out over allegations of sexism and sexual harassment.
Lundquist was driven by a broad coalition of volunteers and organizations pushing for a Green New Deal in Los Angeles, humane treatment of the unhoused, and addressing vast inequalities in the district.
Lee’s platform was heavy on the law and order, skeptical of climate action, and focused on privileging the rights of homeowners above everyone else.
This was a battle over the future of LA. But it also was not.
When Englander abruptly resigned at the end of 2018 (announcing that the morning after hosting an $800 per person fundraiser), it triggered a special election to finish out his term. Fellow GOP member Greg Smith was appointed to fill the seat while the campaign ran its course. Had Englander waited until January 2019 to resign there would have been no election, and in all likelihood Smith would have been appointed to the seat until the end of the term.
But Englander got antsy, I guess, and so CD 12 found itself in the grips of an election run at a breakneck pace. Resignation at the end of December, primary in June, run off in August. No matter who won, they would have to face re-election in March 2020, along with the other even numbered districts.
According to the LA County Registrar and Recorder, there were 169,176 eligible registered voters for the election on Tuesday, August 13th. Of those, 32,189 people voted. A 19.02% turnout. Lee won 52.07% of the vote, Lundquist won 47.93%.
Superficially, the battle for the future of LA seems settled.
Realistically, this battle is just beginning.
It’s disappointing that Lee was able to power himself over the finish line with big spending from fossil fuel interests, outright fabrications about his opponent’s platform, and a rhetorical style that privileged viciousness above all else. But it’s not fatal.
Dr. Lundquist is a political novice. She has never run for any office or managed any kind of campaign. She is a dedicated educator, mother, and community member. It was the leak at Aliso Canyon that spurred her to action, as it did with many of her neighbors. Lee’s campaign attempted to paint her as outsider, but it was her commitment to the community that motivated her run.
Lundquist racked up endorsements from City Hall, Congress, and her primary opponents. Newer organizations like Sunrise Movement Los Angeles rallied members to door knock, phone bank, and push her narrative. More established groups like Ground Game LA, Food and Water Action, Save Porter Ranch, and Bike The Vote, also threw their support behind Lundquist, building a large volunteer corp that reached thousands of voters.
We still lost. But not by much.
Cynically, we can see that the forces of capital are willing to spend big money and lie to make sure that they retain control over a council seat. They are willing to fabricate positions, send out mailers with incorrect information, and wage a media campaign to control the narrative.
That’s the thing though, the Lundquist campaign was always the underdog. Her win in the primary was an upset. And no one was more surprised than the fossil fuel interests who began throwing money behind Lee’s campaign.
Optimistically, we can see that we gave powerful, monied interests a run for their money. Despite being massively outspent in both elections, Ludquist came within a hair’s breadth of victory. If there are 169,176 voters in CD12, then Lee’s 1300 vote advantage is 0.7% of all eligible voters.
14,000 people showed up to support a woman who had never run for office. 14,000 people showed up to support a Green New Deal. 14,000 people showed up to say that LA needs to commit to a better future.
In only 6 months Dr. Lundquist not only created a campaign, she drove the movement forward and came achingly close to winning. This is not a defeat.
When John Lee walks into City Hall he’ll have to sit on the dais with more councilmembers who endorsed his opponent than endorsed him. He’ll have to sit through public comments coming from the people that his backers lied about. He’ll be caught under the shadow of an FBI investigation into LADWP, who’s union spent big money getting him there. He’ll only be able to rest for a minute, because he has to defend his seat again in March 2020.
If John Lee isn’t worried about the next election, then he is incredibly shortsighted and even more vulnerable than he appears. There is no GOP Presidential primary this year, only a Democratic one. The lead up to March is going to drive Democratic voter turnout. How will that play for the only remaining Republican in City Hall?
Let’s look at how much those 1300 votes cost Lee. Lee’s campaign raised $530,306 and spent $797,766. Dr. Lundquist raised $367,604 and spent $611,191. Spending by outside groups looks about the same; Lee had $510,366 spent on his behalf, Lundquist had $257,194.
To total this (and this only includes outside spending in favor of each candidate, not opposition spending): $1,308,132 was spent to boost Lee, $868,385 was spent to boost Lundquist. That’s a difference of $439,747.
Those 1300 votes cost Lee nearly $500,000 or about $340 each.
In 2016, 48% of registered voters in California turned out. Tuesday’s election saw only 19% turnout. More to the point, the vast majority of voters turned out for the Democratic primary, nearly 2:1 in fact. And this time around there isn’t a Trump on the ballot to drive turnout on the right.
Also, CSUN and Occidental will be in session in March, meaning that students who have been out of town during summer break will be here to vote. With the debate over Bus Rapid Transit kicking up in the valley, it’s not hard to imagine that there are thousands of motivated college students who will want to make sure that they get a councilmember who votes in their interests.
The question is: will Lee be able to spend enough to overcome the surge in Democratic turnout?
My hope and my goal is to make sure he can’t. We just showed that this is possible. With less money power and more people power, the Lundquist campaign proved that on the ground, face to face campaigning works. CD 12 should have been incredibly unfriendly territory and yet half the people who voted chose her.
Most City Council elections are decided in the top two primary, often by huge margins. But not CD 12. For all the mailers and fear mongering and lies, Lee was only able to secure 1300 extra votes, a 4% margin.
130,000 voters stayed home this election, the winning campaign in March will be the campaign that convinces them to turn in a ballot.
Lee can still do some damage before his term is up, honestly it would be about the same as having Greg Smith for the rest of the term. But the clock is ticking.
March will be here soon. There is no time to sit still or to wonder what we could have done differently. There is time to organize. There is time to make those changes a reality. There is time to ensure that this was a Pyrrhic victory for Lee and his fossil fuel allies.