Northern LA City Council district choosing from bewildering array of candidates

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As the March 7 primary election approaches, voters in northeast San Fernando Valley are facing the difficult task of choosing from among 20 candidates running to fill the open seat in the Los Angeles City Council's District 7.

District 7 covers communities like Pacoima, Sunland, Tujunga, Mission Hills, Sylmar and Lake View Terrace. The district's residents have been without a vote on the council since last fall when Felipe Fuentes left abruptly to become a lobbyist.

The vacancy drew a flood of candidates, some who are relatively new to politics.

"I’m one of the most political animals in my neighborhood and I can’t make sense of it. I don’t even know how to find out about some of these people. I’ve never heard their names," said MaryAnne Steinberger, a district resident, during a recent visit to Courtship Ranch where she boards her horse. 

Steinberger has lived in Tujunga for more than 20 years and worries about how her next City Council representative will vote on issues like zoning changes that could impact this horse-friendly area of the city.

"We are kind of embattled. We’re about the last corner of Los Angeles where ordinary people can afford to keep horses, where we’re able to do any of this," she said.

Steinberger did ultimately pick a candidate to support who aligns with her views — Sunland resident Dale Gibson. But she says it wasn't easy to wade through the candidate choices.

With such a crowded field, it’s unlikely anyone will capture enough votes to win the race outright in the primary, according to Mona Field, a political science professor emeritus at Glendale Community College.

"I would project this as 'who knows what'll happen March 7.' There will obviously be a runoff," she said. 

The last time the District 7 seat was on the ballot in 2013, just 21 percent of registered voters showed up. That low turnout gives residents who do vote a lot of power at the polls, although they don’t necessarily reflect the district as a whole.

"Low voter turnout will tend to skew towards older voters who are more consistent, property owners, homeowners, rather than renters," she said. "It's going to be more white voters even though of course council District 7 is heavily Latino."

The full list of the 20 candidates and the campaign contributions they've raised is available online. KPCC's Voter Edge guide provides information on District 7 candidates who filled in their profiles. And information on the candidates and ballot measures is also available on the city of Los Angeles elections website.

A look at the fundraising reports shows two clear frontrunners — Monica Rodriguez and Karo Torossian are the only candidates with contributions in the six figures. Rodriguez is the former vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. Torossian is the director of planning and the environment for City Councilmember Paul Krekorian.

Torossian is a Democrat who voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary before switching to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in November. He's been endorsed by the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley.

"I want this job because the city is at a very important point right now with development," he said. "We have thousands of acres of open space that are for sale in the 7th District that need to be preserved. We have some of the commercial corridors along this area that really need to be upgraded." 

Torossian said he'll vote "no" on Measure S, the city ballot measure ballot proposal to restrict new construction in Los Angeles, and "yes" on Measure H, a county measure that would implement a quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services. He said he's committed to serving the entire 5 1/2-year term, plus the next two terms if voters were to re-elect him. 

"I don't see this as a stepping stone to the next position. This is my dream position," he said. 

Torossian has been giving out his personal cell phone numbers to voters to show he's accessible.  

"Our team has talked to over 10,000 voters in the district," he said. 

Rodriguez is also focused on voter outreach. During a visit to her campaign headquarters, she was on her cell phone making calls to uncommitted voters in the district. 

When it comes to endorsements, Rodriguez is leading the pack – Mayor Eric Garcetti is among her backers. This is Rodriguez' second run at the City Council. In 2007, she had a failed bid against former City Councilmember Richard Alarcon. She previously worked as his deputy and as an aide to former Mayor Richard Riordan.

She said she's not taking any chances in this campaign. "In this race I take nobody for granted, everybody is absolutely a credible competitor in this race," she said.   

Rodriguez is also voting "no" on Measure S and "yes" on Measure H. She voted for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in both the primary and general election. 

"This is a community I've called home my entire life. I've seen the continued deterioration and the shortcomings in terms of our leadership," she said. "I know how to bridge all of the needs in this area to help really demonstrate to the community that there's a lot that we can have together if we build those collaborations." 

If no one wins the race outright in March, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election on May 16.

Fifteen of the 20 candidates running for the District 7 seat responded to KPCC's survey on the top issues facing their constituents. Read their answers.

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