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Different definitions of diversity as LA council runoff election nears between Ramsey and Ryu

On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles' Council District Four will choose between two candidates who are rarity in council chambers – an Asian American and a woman. But voters define diversity - and representation - in different ways. Photo by Salina Canizales/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles' fourth council district will choose between two candidates who would be rarity if elected to join the council – an Asian American and a woman.
 
Only one woman currently holds a City Council seat. The first and only Asian American council member, Mike Woo, left in 1993.
 
Which, at least for some voters, makes the runoff between David Ryu and Carolyn Ramsay about more than just the issues affecting this sprawling district. Ryu is a development director at a community health center; Ramsay was chief of staff to outgoing councilman Tom LaBonge.

Council District 4 stretches from the San Fernando Valley to parts of Koreatown. It also includes Hollywood, where voter Vicki Weiss has lived for decades.

“I just think you have better representation if you have a diverse group," Weiss said one recent afternoon as she sipped coffee with a friend in Larchmont Village, also in the district.
 
Weiss would like to see another woman on the council. This will influence her vote, she said. But so will the candidates' views on how to manage zoning and development.
 
Some observers say it's issues like these that will matter more at the polls than diversity in City Hall.
 
“I’ll guarantee that for many voters in the district, the most important question is not going to be which of these two groups gets representation, but what gets built in the district and where it gets built," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Los Angeles.
 
Still, in a city where the population is 50 percent female and 11 percent Asian, diversifying the council beyond its current white, black, Latino - and mostly male - makeup is a needed change, said community activist Grace Yoo.

“Currently the city council is acting like an old boys club," complained Yoo, who ran for a District 10 seat earlier this year against incumbent Herb Wesson, who won. "It's 'us vs. everybody else, we are the insiders,' " she said, characterizing the council.

Yoo is among those who have long called for greater Asian American representation in City Hall. An attempt to create a unified Koreatown district fell through during the most recent redistricting of boundaries, prompting a lawsuit from Asian-American activists.

Yoo said she favors Ryu to win, not just because he's Korean American, but because he's not a City Hall veteran.

"David is not being backed by the insiders at City Hall," Yoo said. "Carolyn is. There will be more change with David than with Carolyn."

But voters participating in the election have different definitions of change. For Wendy Holley, who lives near the Hollywood sign, it means putting the brakes on what she calls out-of-control tourist traffic in her neighborhood.

"We have tens of thousands of tourists crowding up our tiny, tiny streets," said Holley, who said the crowds create congestion and leave behind litter. 

Holley already voted by mail for Ramsay, because she felt the candidate had a stronger position on the tourism issue. However, gender diversity "certainly played a role in my voting for her," Holley said. "I feel like that is another personal choice, too."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC senior fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, said while she thinks ethnicity and demography will play a role, it will ultimately come down to the basic question in politics: "What have you done for me lately?" she said. "It will come down on views, on issues, on proposals, on programs. It will come down, to some extent, on money, and it will come down, to some extent, on message."

However voters define representation, come Wednesday, the council will look different regardless of who wins.

"They would definitely both be improving what has not been a very good representational situation," Sonenshein said, "for either women or Asian Americans."