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As Joe Biden and Donald Trump close out the final two weeks before the election with fights over fundamental differences between the left and right, a very different race is playing out in Los Angeles. Nithya Raman, the Bernie Sanders-supported progressive candidate, and David Ryu, the more moderate liberal incumbent, are in the last days of a runoff election for City Council District 4, stretching from the San Fernando Valley to Silver Lake.
The race — which became a runoff after Ryu received 45 percent of the vote to Raman’s 41 percent in March’s election, as neither earned a majority — has engaged its electorate in a way that local government rarely does, even seeing major national Democratic endorsements for Ryu from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. The March election saw voter participation soar, with 76,660 votes cast in the District 4 primary compared to 24,000 in 2015, and the race has become the most expensive city council run ever. That engagement has extended heavily to Hollywood, where many of the town’s creatives — actors, actresses and writers — have backed Raman, while studios, agencies and labor unions have flocked to Ryu.
“Nithya is not in this race for herself; she really cares about standing with the marginalized and making a difference; she cares about standing up against dark money and corruption,” Jane Fonda, one of Raman’s early supporters, tells THR. “She will fight for the people.”
Raman, a Harvard- and MIT-educated urban planner who left her position as executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment to run for city council, has a platform that includes ending the homeless crisis, preventing climate change and reworking the relationship with City Hall. Along with her husband, former Modern Family EP Vali Chandrasekaran, Raman’s list of supporters include Natalie Portman, Tina Fey, Kendrick Sampson, Lily Tomlin, Nick Kroll, David Mandel and Alan Yang; Mike Schur, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman and Busy Philipps have recently hosted events for her campaign and she has gotten phone banking support from Joel Kim Booster and Yassir Lester.
“Nithya has dedicated the better part of her career to the disadvantaged in this city — it’s not just talk, she’s done the work,” Booster says. “As a volunteer the first question we ask when we phone bank isn’t ‘who are you voting for?’, it’s ‘how are you surviving this thing, what can we do to help?’ That’s a huge part of why I am so passionate about her campaign. It’s not about her or her ego, her main focus has always been the well being of the people of this city. She’s made me feel hopeful again, not angry or righteous, which are generally what I associate with politics these days.”
As for Ryu, the council member who was first elected five years ago — as the first Korean American to ever serve on the LA City Council — has his own fair share of supporters. Those who have contributed to Ryu’s re-election include a number of executives from Endeavor, Walt Disney and Comcast NBCUniversal, including Jeff Shell, Endeavor CCO Christian Muirhead, former HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo and Comcast executive director of diversity and inclusion Mini Timmaraju. Ryu also hosted an event on Sept. 24 with Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel. He’s been endorsed by local chapters of the IATSE Labor Union, and is running on a broad platform of reimagining public safety in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, reforming the city charter, reprioritizing the budget, building more affordable housing and creating a sustainable future.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand his advocacy for women’s rights, having worked alongside him to raise awareness on the plight of human trafficking victims, championing housing for domestic violence survivors and homeless women,” says Tarzan screenwriter Jessica Postigo, a longtime supporter. “He opened the first shelter dedicated exclusively for unhoused women and their children in Hollywood. His outreach within the community to help support those most impacted by coronavirus was impressive. He was quick to offer services such as motel rooms for those most vulnerable on our streets, protected renters from eviction, offered grants for small businesses, among many others. He’s a responsive public servant, a passionate policy advocate and a tireless protector of our city.”
And though his platform is wide-reaching, Ryu says all of the issues are closely connected, citing how he helped secure city landmark status for CBS’ Television City in 2018, which kept the studio space from being torn down.
“These are the jobs that we want to preserve and keep in Los Angeles; what that does is it prevents homelessness, it prevents unemployment, it revives the economy,” Ryu says. As for his plan to secure 30 percent of new builds as low-income housing, “then we can have the studio hands and everyone else who’s working in the city live near their job. If they live near their job, [that means]less commute times, less traffic, and that also means less smog, better air quality, better health benefits. It’s all interrelated.”
Raman, a mother of two living in Silver Lake, says she was inspired to run after years of “doing the work of the city” as a volunteer with homeless organizations, while also taking with her what she saw during her year at Time’s Up.
“I realized how important it is to have leadership that has the courage to speak out about things that they see that are wrong, and how vital that is for making change, and how so much of the issues that were brought up by Time’s Up could have been addressed if we’d had different leadership in place,” she says. She also seeks to remedy City Hall’s dismal female representation — with two women out of 18 elected representatives — and become the first woman to ever represent District 4.
Raman has faced some criticism, though, about her tenure leading the organization’s entertainment and production arm; producer Cheryl Bedford and founder of Women of Color Unite has spoken out about what she says are disagreements the two had about Time’s Up’s use of resources and, according to Bedford, lack of attention paid to elevating Black women in the industry.
Following Raman’s recent support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bedford says, “I’m just like everybody else out here, any marginalized person, calling out performative B.S. Don’t say that you helped women or women of color when you didn’t. How am I supposed to trust you with my area to stand up to big business and you couldn’t even stand up to those in charge of this systemic racist system?”
In response, Raman said in a statement, “I wholeheartedly agree with Cheryl’s assessment on the need for greater support for mid-career WOC in the entertainment industry, and for women of color overall. In my year at Time’s Up, I worked to create resources, programming, and responses that would meet the needs in the entertainment industry, including one of the most intensive and successful mentorship programs in the industry for the executive and producer pipeline. But I was always acutely aware of how much more there was to be done to dismantle systemic racism and sexism in the industry, and we still have so much farther to go. I’m grateful for Cheryl’s continued leadership in identifying and tackling these immense challenges.”
One point of criticism around Ryu’s record has been his ties to big Los Angeles money. Raman has previously called him out for taking funds from Universal execs in relation to developments, which Ryu says he returned. Asked about his ties to wealthy donors, corporations and developers, Ryu says Raman has raised more from the Hollywood crowd than he has (though his contributions total more than $1.7 million, while hers sit at $1 million) and questions, “Are we starting to classify which wealthy person is good or bad?”
“I don’t want to focus on ‘This rich person is bad, that rich person is good.’ Do we really want to get into a count of how many wealthy donors [Raman] has and I have? I mean, that’s just silly,” he continues. “I’m not a millionaire and not only am I not a millionaire, I don’t have a wealthy donor class of folks that I’m friends with or hang out with.”
Now in the final days of the increasingly acrimonious campaign, supporters from both sides are making one final push for a seat on one of the most powerful city councils in the country, with a key crossroads of progressive or moderate policies, amid a pandemic that has kept them from knocking on doors and sitting down with constituents.
“We’re in an emergency and at the local level, ideals are not nearly enough. My neighbors and I have found David Ryu to be incredibly responsive and eager to take on unscrupulous developers, manipulative expeditors, and Airbnb party houses,” says longtime manager and producer Arnold Stiefel. “His engagement is not just theoretical or abstract. He stands for all the right things and, more importantly, knows how to get them done.”
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