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Heat turning up in quiet LA City Council race as candidates debate narrow differences

Los Angeles City Council District 7 candidates Karo Torossian and Monica Rodriguez face off in Tuesday's general election. Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Northeast San Fernando Valley has been without a Los Angeles City Council member since last September, but voters finally get to pick a new representative in Tuesday's general election. 

The unusual council vacancy came after former Los Angeles Councilman Felipe Fuentes left suddenly last fall to become a lobbyist. In his absence, Council President Herb Wesson has been overseeing the district after appointing himself to the job, but the community hasn't had a voting member.

"You feel like a stepchild at best when there's no representative," said Jaime Regalado, Cal State Los Angeles emeritus professor of political science. "There's this feeling ... that nobody really represents you."

Twenty candidates initially competed for the seat representing District  7, which stretches from Sylmar to Shadow Hills and takes in Pacoima, Sunland-Tujunga and Mission Hills. Following the March primary, the race is now down to two opponents: Monica Rodriguez and Karo Torossian.

Rodriguez is the former vice president of the L.A. Board of Public Works. Torossian is the director of planning and the environment for Councilman Paul Krekorian. 

The district faces major problems: high poverty and crime rates plague the area and its infrastructure needs fixing. Many residents are eager to fill the council seat with a responsive representative who can address their concerns, which some said weren't adequately addressed by Fuentes

The winner of the race will join the 15-member council, the powerful body that controls a budget of roughly $9.2 billion. Despite the high stakes, voter turnout is expected to be low. The city's March primary drew just 21.27 percent of registered voters.

Rodriguez was the top vote-getter in the primary with about 28 percent of the vote; Torossian earned about 16 percent.

Rodriguez also leads in campaign fundraising. According to campaign filings last week, her most recent contributions were more than double that of Torossian's. During the filing period from April 2 to April 29, she drew $119,016.79 in contributions compared to Torossian's $46,090.

Rodriguez further reported $215,192.14 in cash on hand compared to $92,891.61 for Torossian. The next campaign filing deadline is today. Candidates have until the end of the day to file. 

Choosing between two similar candidates

On challenge for voters in the district has been discerning the differences between the two Democrats. They have more points of agreement than disagreement.

But there are some areas of concern for the district where the candidates part company.

Take homelessness: they both support additional housing for the homeless and services like counseling, medical care and job training. 

But Torossian has called for a system modeled after one used in Burbank that would require the homeless to work toward solving their issues by seeking out services. He wants to see the homeless carry service cards that track each time they get help from social services.

Torossian said the plan would help law enforcement implement laws already on the books and hold homeless people accountable if they do not participate in services.

Rodriguez believes service cards would only add to city bureaucracy and discourage people from seeking services. 

On the issue of state's high-speed rail project, the candidates also have differing views. Torossian has said he is opposed to the bullet train; he would redirect any funds to local transportation projects. Rodriguez opposes any above-ground plans for the rail project and favors upgrading Metrolink so that commuters can use existing tracks from Palmdale to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. 

A point of sometimes heated contention in this race centers on campaign support from special interests.

During a recent debate sponsored by the Sylmar Neighborhood Council, Torossian acknowledged accepting donations from the construction industry. He also criticized Rodriguez for what he said are her long-standing ties to Chevron. The energy company is supporting Rodriguez through independent expenditures not affiliated with her campaign. 

"It’s been an ongoing, 10-year relationship," Torossian said. This is an election issue because there are 58 oil wells that are dry in District 7. They can only be activated by fracking, the process of injecting high-pressure liquid underground to extract oil and gas.

Rodriguez shot back at Torossian's charges, telling the audience at the debate that her alliances are to the residents of District 7. 

"I am not in support of fracking. I will stand up to making sure that we don’t have fracking in our community, and I’m tired of these baseless attacks," she said.

Regalado of Cal State L.A. said both candidates have long histories in the community, and each has attracted solid support. "They both bring a lot of endorsements with them," he said.

Rodriguez has the support of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra. She also won the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party and the L.A. County Federation of Labor. 

Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom is backing Torossian, as is SEIU Local 721, the powerful local labor group that represents city and county employees. 

"Look, they're both really good Democrats," said Mark Gonzalez, the vice chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party. Gonzalez said while Rodriguez won the county party's endorsement for the general election, she did not earn enough votes to secure it ahead of the primary.

"I would say that the reason Monica won the endorsement is because she has a long track record, not just in her community but across the county," Gonzalez said.

SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover acknowledged that his chapter often aligns with the L.A. County Democratic Party and the L.A. County Federation of Labor, but said his members disagreed with those groups this time around.

Schoonover said Torossian seems to have a better grasp of the issues. But added: "This isn't a case, you know, where there's necessarily a really bad candidate and a good candidate. It isn't really that at all."

Another issue Regalado points to is the number of female members on the City Council. Currently, just one of its 15 spots is filled by a woman. That's Nury Martinez, who represents District 6. If Rodriguez wins, she would bring that number to two. 

"Whether she’s the best candidate or not of the two is not for me to say. That’s for voters to say. But I don’t think you’re going to get a whole lot of difference between them," Regalado said. 

For more information on the candidates in the District 7 race, read KPCC’s candidate survey. You can also view District 7 debates and use our Voter's Edge voter guide; just enter your zip code in the guide and get information on the candidates' backgrounds, priorities and supporters.