The race for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council between incumbent Mitch O’Farrell and challenger Hugo Soto-Martinez on the Nov. 8 is one politicos are keeping a close eye on.
Soto-Martinez, a labor and community organizer, took the top spot in the June primary, leading O’Farrell 38.3 percent to 33.9 percent, with four other challengers left in the dust.
The question is whether residents have confidence in O’Farrell, their longtime representative, or if the 256,315 residents are looking for a completely new approach in Council District 13, a sprawling district shaped like a fox with rabbit ears, which includes Atwater Village, Echo Park, Historic Filipinotown, Little Armenia, Hollywood and Silver Lake.
The race is among a number of races for powerful local posts in which mainstream candidates and incumbents face progressive challengers at the polls.
Joel Fox, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and a political analyst, says the key to winning the seat in CD 13 is partly about the four challengers on the June ballot who lost — and whether those voters are more likely to support one candidate or the other.
“Soto-Martinez is running as a Democratic socialist and that’s seem the way some of the districts in Los Angeles are turning,” Fox said recently. “The question is, how effective and strong the (voter) turnout will be, to put such a candidate in office? And how is O’Farrell countering that?”
O’Farrell, an Oklahoma native from a working-class family, is one of four children of Irish and Native American heritage who grew up in modest surroundings. By the time he reached fifth grade, he had been enrolled in six schools.
“When I was 14, I realized I was gay,” O’Farrell said recently. “I have a very vivid memory of making this realization and also what came next — (that) I was determined to have a successful, productive life and make the most out of my time. This resolve and determination has translated directly into public service.”
Today, O’Farrell has powerful admirers.
Mark Gonzalez, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, has known O’Farrell since their high school days and is backing O’Farrell.
Gonzalez believes O’Farrell’s strong points are his fight for renter’s rights, providing food banks during the pandemic, championing COVID testing and working on basic infrastructure issues.
“He has not voted to defund the police,” Gonzales said of O’Farrell. “The three biggest issues facing Los Angeles are homelessness, public safety and housing affordability. He’s been able to tackle those issues. We see the progress he has made with encampments and getting people housed and sheltered and wraparound services.”
He criticized O’Farrell’s challenger, Soto-Martinez, as “coming in with ideas, but doesn’t have a record of doing.” Gonzalez called it “malpractice” if Soto-Martinez ends up representing District 13.
The Hollywood sign undergoes a fresh paint job Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Work started on Monday and painters will apply nearly 400 gallons of paint to the sign over the course of eight weeks. The project is expected to be completed in November. This year marks a centennial for the iconic sign. Sherwin-Williams, which last refurbished the sign in 2012, will run the project again. Duggan and Associates, a Los Angeles-based painting company, will paint the 45-feet-high sign. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker, contributing photographer)
Soto-Martinez would disagree with that assessment of his track record and leadership abilities.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, his parents were street vendors. At 14, his dad sustained a back injury that left him permanently disabled. He started working at a non-union hotel in downtown Los Angeles, went to UC Irvine where he majored in political science, and, as a hotel employee, began organizing a union.
“For the last 16 years I did not continue with my goal of going to law school because I was so inspired by what we can do,” he said during a recent phone call. “I (was) dedicated to bringing workers into the union, renegotiating contracts. I did a lot of political work across the country.”
Soto-Martinez acknowledges that he doesn’t have the experience of an elected leader, but notes that he worked on many policy issues as a union organizer and leader, pushing for a minimum wage and Airbnb regulations.
He says criticism that he hasn’t held an elected position doesn’t hold water. “What was very clear, in the (June primary) results, is that nearly 70 percent of the district did not vote for the incumbent” in the primary, Soto-Martinez said.
But O’Farrell, who was first elected to the city council in 2013, is not one to sweep the city’s challenges under the rug.
O’Farrell, who describes himself as an impatient man with a sense of urgency, believes voters understand that Los Angeles is at a crossroads, facing major challenges as it emerges from the pandemic and grapples with homelessness, housing, climate change, public safety and more.
“Thirteenth district voters will have quite a contrast in choices before them,” O’Farrell said. “If we are going to address our challenges and meet our goals — like getting to 100% renewable energy — Los Angeles needs experienced, tough, effective leaders, and I’m one of those leaders. I bring seasoned leadership that comes with knowing how to effectively pull the levers of government.”
He defended his time in office and touts accomplishments including his efforts to address homelessness. He said he pushed hard for CIRCLE, or Crisis and Incident Response through Community-Led Engagement, first piloted in Hollywood and Venice, and which he hopes to see citywide.
The program is designed to aid law enforcement in focusing on crime suppression and prevention by diverting non-emergency calls that are related to homelessness. In the July 1, 2022 city budget, funding was allocated to bring the program to more areas of Hollywood, as well as downtown, South L.A. and parts of the San Fernando Valley.
The two candidates have some similarities. Soto-Martinez says the top three issues he sees facing Los Angeles residents are homelessness, crime and affordable housing.
“We have to stop the incorrect decisions of the city, sweeping people, just moving them from one (block) to another,” Soto-Martinez said. “We are literally rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”
He says the city approves only a bare minimum percentage of affordable units when housing developments are proposed. Soto-Martinez explains, “We are going to demand more, a minimum of 20 percent in affordable housing, versus the 8 or 9 (percent) we get now.”
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But affordable housing is a problem facing almost all California cities, in large part due to state housing funding which has drawn ongoing criticism that Sacramento is falling short and leaving cities to scramble.
Farrell has also made affordable housing a key talking point, noting in a tweet in June that “Under my watch, my district is a leader in affordable housing — more than 4,300 units since I’ve been in office, way more than most districts” — referring to affordable units built, financed, approved or in the pipeline.
Like Soto-Martinez, O’Farrell is doing the math in which the two men fell short of a majority in the June 2022 primary, and now must draw in new voters who wanted someone else or didn’t vote at all.
O’Farrell says he is running a strong campaign built upon the support he got in June and his messaging about values and visions shared by a broad coalition of voters across his district.
“There were five candidates in the primary, representing a variety of perspectives,” he said of the primary. “Voters for other candidates, who did not make the general election, are looking to connect with a candidate — and that’s about a third of all the people who voted in the primary. There will also be thousands of people voting in the general election who did not vote in the primary. So, there are a lot of people with whom both campaigns must connect.”
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