How Nithya Raman And Other Progressive Campaigns Beat The LA Establishment — And What's Next

A banner in Silver Lake for Nithya Raman, who won the Nov. 3 2020 election to represent CD4 on the Los Angeles City Council. (Eric Kelly)

This election brought historic wins for progressive candidates in Los Angeles, who were victorious in races for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, City Council and District Attorney's office. Voters also adopted a ballot measure to amend the county charter and shift funds from the budget — including the sheriff's department — to community programs and jail diversion.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Pete White, founder of L.A. Community Action Network, which campaigned for Measure J. He said the next challenge is to hold newly elected leaders accountable for campaign promises and to put pressure on the county's Board of Supervisors to follow through by investing in alternatives to incarceration and other community priorities.

"Implementation is more of the battle than the actual campaign," White said.

Activists say there's a mandate for expanding the social safety net, enhancing police accountability and accelerating criminal justice reform — including reallocating funding for law enforcement to mental health programs and other supportive services.

"The only way that this is possible," added White, "is that you have millions of people in the streets who are saying, Defund the police, and We want something different."

Pete White, founder and co-director of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) speaking at Jackie Robinson Stadium Nov. 1 2020. (Eric Kelly )

On Monday, District Attorney-elect George Gascón met with Black Lives Matter-LA leaders and family members of people killed by local law enforcement agencies. He praised BLM-LA's years-long effort to oust incumbent Jackie Lacey and promised to examine past cases of police use of force for possible criminal charges against the officers involved.

NITHYA RAMAN UNSEATS INCUMBENT DAVID RYU

Progressives won in races where community organizations flexed their political muscle to help support candidates who criticized politics-as-usual in Los Angeles. A prime example of that came in City Council District 4.

Once the dust settled after Election Day, urban planner Nithya Raman had unseated incumbent David Ryu to represent a sprawling district that includes Los Feliz, Sherman Oaks and parts of Koreatown.

A sitting city councilmember is almost never defeated in Los Angeles — and, even more rare, Raman had no prior elected experience. (The last incumbent to lose was Nick Pacheco in 2003, but his opponent was Antonio Villaraigosa, who had already served as Speaker of the State Assembly.)

The Raman campaign attracted roughly 2,000 volunteers, a large number of small-dollar donations, and a sprinkling of celebrity: Natalie Portman was among her backers. Bernie Sanders endorsed Raman's bid, while Ryu picked up support from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Nithya Raman, Los Angeles City Councilmember-elect for the 4th District. (Eric Kelly)

But Raman says this wasn't a glitzy campaign. The strategy was consistent, in-person outreach and — when COVID forced a different approach — online interactions.

"People were seeing us in their apartment buildings and neighborhoods where door knocking doesn't traditionally happen," Raman said.

"This was the first time that they were having any kind of political campaign knocking on their doors," she continued. "It was a moment to go to people and tell them what the city council's powers were, and talk about ways in which their lives could be improved."

[Hear more of Libby Denkmann's interview with Nithya Raman on Monday's Take Two on KPCC. Fast forward 40:15 for the start of the segment.]

The seeds for Raman's victory were sown during another candidate's defeat a few years earlier.

The progressive nonprofit, Ground Game LA, grew out of Jessica Salans' unsuccessful 2017 campaign for city council, when she challenged CD 13 Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell. Members of the Salans team decided to organize for other progressive candidates and causes. They cut their teeth on an independent expenditure group for CD12 candidate Loraine Lundquist and supported Katie Hill's 2018 victory in the 25th Congressional District.

"We had incredibly good mentorship from groups that had been doing this work for a long time," said Meghan Choi, co-founder of Ground Game LA and co-chair for the Nithya Raman campaign.

Choi is part of the new generation of progressive organizers who have come on the scene since 2016, when Bernie Sanders energized left-of-the-left-wing candidates and activists in many parts of Los Angeles.

"We're seeing a new wave of leadership that is exciting to watch," said Aura Vasquez, a former candidate for City Council District 10 who was also endorsed by Ground Game LA. "It's also sending a signal that time for a change has come. And this is just the beginning."

One sign that voters may be ready to turn the page: The local Democratic Party endorsed Herb Wesson for L.A. County Supervisor and Ryu, but that support failed to tip the scales for either candidate.

Wesson, a fixture in Los Angeles politics as the powerful City Council President for eight years, lost his bid to State Senator Holly Mitchell, who enjoyed support from Sanders and progressive icons such as Dolores Huerta.

"The traditional Democratic establishment is struggling," said Vasquez, "[because] they haven't been able to keep up with more progressive policies that are resonating with everyday people."

State Senator Holly Mitchell meeting with supporters at her election night watch party the evening of California's 2020 primary election on March 3rd 2020. Shot by Annie Lesser for LAist/KPCC (Annie Lesser for LAist/Annie Lesser for LAist/KPCC)

Vasquez believes the city and county have failed to adequately address housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that dissatisfaction, paired with months of protests over police killings, produced a hunger for new solutions — and new faces in county and city government.

"Elections are never easy, but maintaining democracy is something that we're fighting for every day, especially right now," said L.A. County Democratic Party chair Mark Gonzalez in an email that included congratulations to all the winning candidates. "We are proud of all the Democrats who stepped up to run for office ... We look forward to the continued spirited debate on the issues that matter to our 3 million Democrats here in Los Angeles County."

"There's a real demand for change from how the status quo has been operating," said Alex Wolinetz, who co-chaired the Raman campaign working group for the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles.

"The electorate here is much more progressive and to the left than people think it is," Wolinetz said. "The majority of [CD4] voted for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primary."

Structurally, city politics has undergone a dramatic change. Los Angeles municipal elections shifted in 2020 to align with state and national contests for the first time, which brought out a CD4 electorate more than five times larger than previous contests. At least 130,000 voters weighed in on the city council race this year, compared to roughly 24,000 when Ryu won the seat in 2015.

Raman says that provided her an opportunity to reach voters who had never cast a ballot in a city council race before. The campaign targeted groups, including younger people and non-English speakers, who were not considered "high propensity voters."

The lesson for future candidates?

"Never underestimate voters and their interest and their ability to participate," Raman said. "If you talk to them and meet them where they are, it can be a very, very powerful thing."

Deanna Sullivan, mother of David Sullivan, a 19-year-old who was shot and killed by Buena Park Police in 2019 (Eric Kelly)

A larger turnout didn't guarantee a win for the progressive challenger, Choi points out.

"You can still have a situation where you have a mass mobilization, but there's an under vote for city council," Choi said. "We wanted people to be really excited to vote locally. And it wasn't just checking a box, but being really passionate about the types of changes that you can see in your neighborhood and feeling empowered by that."

WHAT'S NEXT?

While progressive political power is ascendant in traditionally center-left Los Angeles, organizers say they're only getting started. Speculation over upcoming mayoral and city council elections has already started.

In the lull before 2022 campaigns kick into high gear, Ground Game plans to continue advocacy around housing and homelessness issues in Los Angeles — including pushing back against a measure that would ban homeless encampments in parts of the city.

"We have a moment between campaigns to dig into the roots of our work," Choi said. "Training people to become organizers and to build power for their neighbors and for themselves."

White says he hopes one of the ripple effects of progressive wins such as Measure J is to bring more people into the city and county budgeting process.

"It isn't just this exercise of advocates and budget number crunchers," White said. "It's something that becomes attainable for all Angelenos."