LA’s Pre-Destined Election Winners? Citizen Researcher “Weighs” In with Answer

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS--This was a very exhausting election season in Los Angeles, particularly in my part of Northeast LA, which includes both the highly contested City Council District 1 and Congressional District 34, vacated by Rep. Becerra. We had one election in each of the four months of March, April, May and June. That's two primaries and two runoffs. Out of curiosity, in January I started saving all the campaign literature mailed to my household, with the intention of weighing it at the end. I allow for the possibility that some mail was thrown into the garbage, but it wouldn't have been very much that was lost. I even rescued some flyers that my wife had angrily torn up.


Last week I finally found Denise's kitchen scale and I started sorting and weighing all the ads -- just in time, since Denise's patience for keeping all that stuff in the house had worn thin.

Here are my results. We got 3,029 grams of mailed campaign literature -- 6.68 pounds! And well over two-thirds of it was from only three races: Measure S, Council District 1 and Congressional District 34.

By far the biggest spender and user of campaign mail was re-elected Councilmember Gil Cedillo. He and his PAC came in at 32 pieces of mailed literature weighing 538 grams -- half a kilo, more than a pound. Gil's was the only pile of mail that "broke" my 1-pound kitchen scale, causing the needle to circle all the way around. I had to separate the pile into two stacks, weigh them separately, and add them up.

Interestingly, almost none of it was from the March 7 primary election campaign, when the narrative was discontent with Cedillo's performance. One of the few mailers from that period was a hilarious flyer saying, "Trump is hoping YOU forget to VOTE." Trump, of course, was not on any of the ballots this year, and the blatant comparison of Cedillo's collective opposition to Trump shows how desperate Cedillo was at that time. I'm keeping that one for posterity. Another PAC mailer misspells his name as "Gill." I'm keeping that one as well.

As we will see, Cedillo was not the only candidate to exploit the golden aura surrounding the name of Trump. He was also not the only one to trade on the golden name of Bernie Sanders, who did not endorse in the race. Cedillo shows Sanders' face on at least three mailers and boasts of being backed by a Sanders-affiliated organization, but nowhere lists Sanders as an endorser. Several Congressional candidates also invoked Sanders' name without an actual endorsement, but not Jimmy Gomez, the eventual winner.

After the primary, when Cedillo could focus on one single opponent, his propaganda machine shifted into high gear. Most of his mailers were positive, stressing endorsements and accomplishments. They listed lots of specific little improvements: street cleanups, street lighting, refurbishment funds, which were even listed on a district map. In the big picture, he took credit for a refinery closure and said he was "leading the fight" or "working on" homelessness and protection of low-income renters.

Ten of the flyers were partly or wholly attack ads against Cedillo's opponent, Joe Bray-Ali. Only two of them, stressing Bray-Ali's Republican past, arrived before the news broke about Bray-Ali's Internet trail. After those revelations and the attendant scandal and uproar, there were eight more attack ads, three of them from a labor-backed independent PAC called "The Coalition to Support Gil Cedillo for City Council 2017." (Keep in mind that this final period was barely three weeks out of a ten-week campaign, and there surely would have been more attack flyers if the campaign had been any longer.) This supports the conclusion that Bray-Ali handed Cedillo a wrapped gift with a bow. Without the Internet scandal and Bray-Ali's almost Trump-like bravado in dealing with it, he still may have lost, but not by so much. He certainly could have increased the 38% he got in the first vote.

In contrast to Cedillo, Bray-Ali mailed 7 pieces of literature weighing 132 g, including one attack ad on Cedillo. None of it was during the primary campaign, and he still reached 38% in the first election, only 11 points behind Cedillo, his high point.

The fact that Cedillo spent so much money and sent so much mail indicates that he was conscious that he might not get re-elected, and he really felt threatened by it. Therefore, he should not strut or crow about his victory. He dodged a bullet, and he knows it. Time will tell if he learned from the experience. No mailers were sent out by Jesse Rosas, Giovany Hernandez or Luca Barton, the other Council candidates.

In second place in mail volume was Jimmy Gomez, the "anointed" Congressional candidate, with 27 pieces of mail totaling 500 g. Like Cedillo, his heavy spending reflects the serious challenge he faced from his nearest challenger, Robert Lee Ahn, and like Cedillo, most of that was in the runoff election. Like Cedillo, his mailers were mostly positive, and even more so - only three attack mailers, if you count one that simply reprinted the LA Times endorsement editorial. His flyers were issue-oriented, mentioning family leave, health care, women's rights and the environment.

Like Cedillo, he boasted endorsements from the Democratic establishment: the mayor, the new senator, the governor and the outgoing congressman. Unlike Cedillo, he got the LA Times endorsement after the primary. (The Times had at first endorsed Maria Cabildo.) No such luck for Cedillo, who never got the Times endorsement even after the Bray-Ali revelations.

Gomez did try to benefit from the name of someone who wasn't on the ballot: Trump. He way outdid Cedillo in the use of Trump's magical name, saying in 14 out of 27 mailers that he was the one to "stand up to" or "stop" Trump's agenda. To be fair, this seems reasonable for someone running for Federal office, but I wonder how someone running for a "safe" seat in a minority party is going to stop Trump. 

Also like Cedillo, Gomez accused his opponent of being a closet Republican. Like Cedillo, he exploited the name and image of someone who was neither running nor endorsing in the race. In Gomez' case, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. He also sent out a flyer during the runoff campaign that quoted Maria Cabildo, one of his primary opponents, saying "we all" support Jimmy Gomez. That is not exactly accurate, since Gomez listed endorsements from only 9 of his 22 primary opponents. Gomez also quoted former President Obama as "thanking" him for leadership on the environment, without listing an actual endorsement.

In contrast, Ahn sent 18 pieces of mail, weighing 305 g, including the potholder and notepad. Ten -- most of the pieces -- were letters enclosed in envelopes, in contrast to Gomez, who only sent two enclosed letters. Seven of the letters attacked Gomez by name, and some of them had ethnic appeals. One compared Gomez to Humpty Dumpty. Of Ahn's eight flyers, all were wholly or partly attack pieces on Gomez. They criticized Gomez for being a professional politician, taking donations from special interests, voting to raise taxes and being a dirty campaigner.

As for the rest of the crowded field of Congressional candidates: Yolie Flores sent 4 mailers (75 g), Sara Hernandez sent 4 (60 g), Alejandra Campoverdi - 3 (50 g), Arturo Carmona - 3 (50 g), Tracy Van Houten - 2 (40 g), Maria Cabildo - 1 (15 g), and Ricardo de la Fuente - 1 (8 g). The other 13 didn't send anything. Many of these candidates also traded on the magical Trump aura, with Yolie Flores even sending out an "Impeach Trump" image. Arturo Carmona featured Bernie Sanders' name and image in all three of his mailers, without an actual endorsement. Kenneth Mejia, who did not use mailers, also claimed support from the Bernie campaign remnants.

In third place with 21 mailers (410 g) was the No on S campaign. The Yes on S campaign nearly matched them, with 19 mailers (385 g), and they started earlier, in December. In the end, however, the Yes side simply could not match the power of the developers, who were never going to run out of money. It was like the American Civil War, with both sides throwing kitchen sinks at each other until one side ran out of kitchen sinks. 

Continuing with the mailers: Mitchell Schwartz, the only credible opposition to Eric Garcetti for mayor, sent 5 flyers (88 g). Ironically, we did not receive any mailers from Garcetti. He was also able to appear on several slate mailers, where candidates normally pay to be listed, without paying for the mention.

Yes on Measure C (protection for accused cops) sent 7 mailers (105 g), and Yes on Measure H (non-housing homeless services) sent 8 mailers (120 g). Neither measure had organized opposition. I guess the backers wanted to be sure.

The races for Community College Board, especially Seats #4 and #6, were astonishingly competitive. I got 4 flyers (53 g) endorsing Veres and Buelna for Seats #2 and #6. You can bet the CC races were on all the slate mailers, too, although some of the endorsements were different. I have to wonder why people were trying so hard to get these seats.

And now for those deadly, deceptive slate mailers, which some people simply take to the polls and copy when they're voting. I got 9 of those (95 g), two of them duplicates, and I put them in a category by themselves. What most people don't realize, and should, is that nearly all these mailers charge a fee to the candidates and causes for their endorsement. (The endorsement that shows an asterisk * has paid to be there.) The only exception, in my collection of slate mailers, is the one from the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, which presumably gives its endorsements for free. (Although I have to wonder about the wisdom and fairness of the party endorsing a candidate before the party primary, when party voters are supposed to have a choice.)

The other 6 slate mailers all got paid by the people they endorse. They include the deceptively named "Los Angeles County Democratic Voter Guide" (really the John F. Kennedy Alliance, I got two mailings from them), the Budget Watchdogs (two from them as well), the Coalition For California, the Coalition For Literacy, COPS, and Voter Guide Slate Cards. They all endorsed Yes on H and No on S; one endorsed Bray-Ali and four endorsed Cedillo; all seven groups endorsed Garcetti, but he only had to pay four of them; and for Community College Board, six endorsed Veres for Seat #2 (he paid 4), six endorsed Moreno for Seat #4 (he paid), one endorsed his rival Fowler for Seat #4 (she didn't pay -- Democratic Party endorsement), 6 endorsed Buelna for Seat #6 (he paid 4), and 1 endorsed his rival Pearlman for Seat #6 (she paid).

It is possible to draw some conclusions from this.

The most glaring fact is that the candidate or cause that spends the most money invariably wins. In every case in Los Angeles, going back decades. But not only that, victory is virtually assured to whoever can get their name and face on more slate mailers, and whoever has more support from established politicians -- the network, old-boy network or crony network if you like. In a one-party town like Los Angeles, that means the eventual winner, most of the time, is preselected, and it also means incumbents are well-nigh unbeatable. The best way to become an officeholder is to hold another office, or be a staff member for an officeholder whom you can succeed when your "turn" comes. This is a self-perpetuating oligarchy -- community activists need not apply.

Even though we complain about it a lot, negative campaigning is not really a factor in local candidate races, except when there are gaping self-inflicted wounds, as in the case of Bray-Ali. Incumbents and establishment candidates don't need to campaign negatively. But in a one-party town, there are certain trigger words, both positive and negative, that can be relied on to provoke automatic behavior from voters. They are like slate mailers in that respect. "Trump," "Republican," and "Bernie" are the most popular ones this year.

And so we find ourselves in a situation with plenty of bubbling discontent in the city, and no motivation for addressing it. All municipal incumbents won their seats back. Every measure supported by the establishment won, and those that weren’t failed. There was no "voter revolt." The more things change, blah blah, the old is dying but blah blah. Our politicians and the special interests that support them (mostly real estate developers) are safe from the anger of the people. Unless there is a movement for change that does not depend on elections.

Except in the case of school board races. There were no school board elections in my area, so I did not analyze them. You can throw out everything I said about elections when it comes to the school board. Except for the money part, of course.

(Tom Louie lives in Northeast Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.