The runoff election to represent L.A.'s 4th District, which stretches from Sherman Oaks to the Miracle Mile, often turns on how to address the area's broken sidewalks and aging pipes.
Carolyn Ramsay, who served as chief of staff to outgoing Councilman Tom LaBonge, faces David Ryu, a a director of development at a community health center and a former staffer for county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
The candidates have clashed over how to fix the district's broken streets, including the historic preservation district of Hancock Park. The special designation means the streets must be repaved with concrete, not less costly asphalt.
Repairs have been getting done recently, but Ryu says it's too late for voters to credit Ramsay with this or future improvements.
"She's basically asking for a second chance to fix the stuff that she couldn't fix," said Ryu.
Ramsay said Hancock Park got some city repairs authorized after she left her job last year as Chief of Staff to outgoing council member Tom LaBonge. She said the timing had nothing to do with the election. A crew installing new concrete bus stop pads along Wilshire Boulevard was available to also do the work in Hancock Park, and the money came out of the council district's discretionary budget, she said.
Insider versus outsider
Their tussle over Hancock Park's concrete streets is just one example of how this race comes down to insider versus outsider, and which candidate voters trust most to fix the city's broken sidewalks and cracked streets.
Ramsay's the insider. Her big idea to improve the city's physical condition is to make the Department of Water and Power and city street services bureau coordinate their work so streets are torn up less often.
"Let's dig once, fix the water pipe, repair the street, fix the sidewalks, leave the neighborhood and don't come back for thirty years," she said.
Ramsay says her knowledge of city departments and the DWP showed her they can coordinate the work.
Ryu casts himself as the outsider.
He complains it's too hard for people to get things fixed through normal channels.
An example: Ryu was frustrated trying to get a water overcharge reversed until a DWP insider did it for him as a favor.
He said, "I thought that was kind of unfair. I was thinking, 'the only way to get something done in the city of L.A. is to know somebody,' right?"
Will infrastructure issues drive people to the polls?
Sidewalks, water pipes and traffic signals are the kinds of things that traditionally get people out to vote.
"If you're driving to work on a daily basis, if you're running over potholes, these are real world immediate problems, and they can in a very significant way motivate how Angelenos behave when they go to the polls on election day," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute on Politics at USC.
A survey of 600 Angelenos last January by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University found that one-third rated the city's street maintenance as poor, and 37 percent gave L.A.'s sidewalk maintenance the same low grade.
Ryu and Ramsay think alike on one of the city's biggest challenges — how to raise the billions of dollars needed to replace aging and broken water pipes. Both say L.A. must eventually borrow those billions, but not until voters trust the city enough to approve a bond measure. That trust is missing now, they say.
"The city of L.A. is like a big black hole. Once you put money in, it goes somewhere and just disappears, and nothing gets done," Ryu said.
Ramsay: "We have to demonstrate that we are squeezing every penny first."
So Ryu and Ramsay are fighting for every vote, hitting up every homeowner forums and neighborhood councils that will host them.
But the candidates have their work cut out for them: Ramsay finished the primary only 85 votes ahead of Ryu in the March primary election when voter turnout in the city was about 10 percent and just over 16 percent in the 4th District. This runoff election, happening in only one council district, could also be low. The election will be held Tuesday, May 19.