Councilmember-Elect Nithya Raman Explains How Hollywood Can Play "Integral Role" in Changing L.A.

Nithya Raman
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Marie Claire

District 4's newest representative discusses why stars including Natalie Portman and Busy Philipps endorsed her, lays out her policy priorities and suggests the industry can do "storytelling work" to promote progressive change.

Among the accomplishments that Nithya Raman can lay claim to in her astonishing 2020 race for a Los Angeles City Council seat is having enticed a number of major Hollywood figures to care deeply about a local race.

Though industry figures frequently endorse, mug and stump for national candidates, the extent of those who did so for Raman, whose opponent conceded the race for District 4 on Nov. 6 and became the first an incumbent Councilmember to be unseated in L.A. in 17 years, was exceedingly unusual. Over the course of the urban planner's campaign, Raman won the endorsements of Tina Fey, Natalie Portman, Mindy Kaling, Jane Fonda, Nick Offerman, Adam Scott, Ike Barinholtz and Busy Philipps alongside those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Actor and writer Joel Kim Booster, writer-director-producer Jesse Zwick and writer Rekha Shankar have discussed volunteering for Raman. Writer-producer and podcaster Hayes Davenport (Vice Principals, Divorce) quit his job to volunteer full-time for Raman's campaign. Raman had Hollywood connections prior to her race — she is the former executive director of Time's Up Entertainment and her husband, Vali Chandrasekaran, is an executive producer on Modern Family — but the extent of its participation in her campaign signaled a shift in the way left-leaning industry members were getting politically involved in 2020.

"I think we are in a time in Los Angeles where the issue of homelessness is really unignorable," Raman, whose campaign emphasized issues of homelessness, public safety and the environment in her district, suggests in a recent interview as one reason why industry members got so involved. "Even in the primary, I think that my campaign was able to provide a way of responding to an issue that I think for many Angelenos makes us feel very overwhelmed and hopeless."

Raman's fight to curb homelessness in her district, which encompasses parts or all of Sherman Oaks, Universal CityWalk, the Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Koreatown and the Miracle Mile neighborhood, comes at an auspicious time. Homelessness rose 16 percent between 2019 and 2020 in L.A., according to the city's last Homeless Count; the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on homelessness has not yet fully been measured, due to rent freezes and eviction moratoriums. And due to L.A.'s "weak mayor" system and relatively small City Council, Raman will wield considerable influence as a member.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Raman discussed her priorities on her first day in office, how she plans to combat L.A. NIMBYism to accomplish her housing platform and policies she hopes Hollywood can get behind.

Your training in urban planning clearly informed your political platform and campaign. Did your time at Time's Up Entertainment offer any lessons as well that helped you in your campaign?

Yeah, for sure. On a personal level, stepping into that leadership role at Time's Up and setting up programs when I was the ED and speaking to the audience that cared about what Time's Up was doing and what it was fighting for, it gave me the confidence in my abilities as a leader and gave me the confidence to step up and say, "Okay, I think I could also run for office." So I really am so grateful for that opportunity and for the work I did there and for the support that the Time's Up community gave me during my run as well.

But I also think that in my election I was going up against an incumbent, and I was going up against an incumbent that was supported by a very, very powerful Los Angeles political machine that has historically protected incumbents very strongly. We have a very strong pro-incumbent culture in L.A.; it's not like that, for example, in the city of San Francisco, it's something that's particular to L.A. And I think that drawing upon the lessons of Time's Up where people were able to speak truth to power and have attention paid to that truth because they built off of the platforms that people in Hollywood had to share the message and to spread the message, I think we were able to utilize some of the platforms that people had who were interested in the issues that I was running on, to be able to lift the message and give it strength against a very powerful political machine.

You've received the endorsement of several notable Hollywood figures including Jane Fonda and Natalie Portman. Why do you think Hollywood was so invested in your race in particular, when historically so few industry figures get deeply and publicly involved in City Council races?

Many of the people who were deeply invested in the race and supported the campaign publicly, they were all constituents, residents of the district — people like Natalie, Busy Philipps, Ike Barinholtz, Adam Scott, who all were public supporters of the campaign, all of them are residents of District 4. And I think we are in a time in Los Angeles where the issue of homelessness is really unignorable. It is everywhere. Even in the primary, I think that my campaign was able to provide a way of responding to an issue that I think for many Angelenos makes us feel very overwhelmed and hopeless. And also makes us feel a lot of outrage and sadness. But in the campaign, we talked about really specific policy responses to this issue that I think could really transform our approach locally, and I think that was exciting for people who were walking around their own city and seeing homelessness rise and really feeling like they wanted to take action on it. And so I think it really aligned with not just their sense but a collective sense of urgency around this issue that was really central to the campaign.

The Hollywood endorsements that you have received, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton throwing their weight behind your opponent David Ryu, among some others, turned the District 4 race into an extremely high-profile contest. What were the benefits and what are the drawbacks of all that attention, from your perspective?

I think one of the benefits of the national attention was that it made people more excited to donate and to volunteer and to support the race because they felt the stakes of it were very high. I think they saw in this race as a reflection of the national divisions in the party and the struggles in the party between more progressive Democrats and more corporate Democrats. And I think people felt, particularly after the primary, when obviously Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders didn’t become our nominee, that [they] wanted a place to put their energy and put their hopes for progressive politics in America. I think this gave them a real sense of possibility that this is where progressive energy can go, among many other [campaigns]; I think this happened in a number of contests across the country, with varying degrees of success. I do think that helped generate enthusiasm for donors and for volunteers to support the campaign.

For me, the drawback of this becoming a reflection of a broader interparty conversation is only that sometimes I feel like observers of the race lost a sense of how local this race was and how local the issues were that were animating it — homelessness and housing policy, these are deeply local issues and City Councilmembers have to be responsive to neighborhood constituents and to the needs of neighborhoods. We tried to, in every way possible, get out to neighborhoods. Even during COVID, when we weren't able to knock on doors, we tried to get out to neighborhoods and to people who didn't always vote in elections and to try and convince them that this City Council race mattered for them and it was a very immediate and local issue. And so I think that was the thing that sometimes got lost when it became portrayed as something that was this broader ideological contest. But in reality, for me, the question was as simple as: Is this City Council addressing your most immediate needs as a resident and the most immediate needs of your neighbors? And if not, could we do better locally? For me, the answer is a resounding "yes." And that is a deeply, deeply local issue that is not ideologically driven, it is just about serving residents as well as we can.

Looking forward, what are the first policy priorities you want to get to work on on day one as a City Councilmember?

Well obviously housing and homelessness issues were the ones that pushed me into running for this seat. I think the urgency around those issues has only deepened. Contextually, we have to consider that COVID has deepened housing vulnerability and housing insecurity for so many people across L.A. L.A. has been hit so hard economically; besides the very obvious health implications for residents, L.A. has been one of the hardest-hit metropolitan regions in the country in terms of the impacts from COVID and I think that residents and small businesses are really up against a wall right now. And so I think those issues I talked about around rents, and let's include commercial rents in there; around evictions; around preventing homelessness, the urgency around responding to those issues has only deepened as a result of COVID. And so I'm really focused on in these coming weeks to make sure that we are responding to people's needs with the urgency and with ambition that this urgency requires.

Several areas in your district are quite wealthy, and your housing platform in some ways challenges the housing system that many of them are used to and benefit from. How do you plan to get wealthier areas and district residents on board with any housing changes that they may see as radical?

That's a really good question, I think that there's a couple of responses to that. One is that I think that what everyone can agree on in Los Angeles is that our current system around housing is not working. You see the most visible and the most devastating implications of that in homelessness, but I think you can see its impacts across so many things that define L.A., that make up Los Angeles and make up the experience of living in Los Angeles right now. And so I think there is a willingness and an openness to talk about housing issues and to talk about housing policy now that there perhaps may not have been in the past.

I also think that the fact that there was such widespread participation in this election is a signal that many more residents are willing to talk about these issues and to talk about changes to the way in which we have set up our current system right now than there ever has been in Los Angeles. In the last general election for this seat, 24,000 people voted, so that's the race that brought David Ryu into power. And he won that with 13,000 or 12,000 votes. In this race already 130,000 people have cast their ballots. And a majority of those voters voted for a change, they wanted a change to our current approach to housing and homeless, and so I do think there is soft ground here for talk about what those changes can look like. I'm deeply committed to community participation and I'm deeply committed to making changes with the support and active engagement of residents. And so I think we can work together to really respond to those issues and to make the changes that we need, and I think we can bring communities along with us. I really believe that. And I'm committed to doing that kind of deep engagement work in the coming weeks and months and years. But you're right that that is an important issue that's going to come up a lot.

During his five years in the Council, David Ryu sometimes struggled to gain support for his more progressive proposals with other Council members. Given the outcome of this election and three new City Councilmembers, who are you looking forward to working with on accomplishing the suggestions in your platform?

I've had the opportunity to speak to some of the sitting Council members and the new ones as well over these coming days, and I'm continuing those conversations over the next few days. And my sense is that I think there is a real willingness among the whole Council to think about how we need to grapple with the challenges that we're facing. I am really looking forward to coalition-building across the entire Council. It feels like a moment in Los Angeles where there's a lot of urgency around the need for more resources and change. In my conversations I have felt an excitement to collaborate from everyone that I've spoken to so far, and I anticipate that being the same when I speak to everyone else. It's only been like four or five days so I don't have a wealth of experience to draw from, but so far it's been really positive.

Given that you've worked with the entertainment industry both in your capacity at Time's Up Entertainment and in your campaign, what are particular policies or initiatives that you would hope that Hollywood should be throwing its weight behind in the coming months, in the next year, given its power?

For both addressing homelessness head on but also things like addressing climate change head on, I think that all the easy stuff is done. All of the things that we're going to have to take on, whether it be increasing the amount of resources available for people experiencing homelessness, increasing the units of affordable housing across Los Angeles, whether it be changing behaviors in terms of how we get around this city and moving out of private automobiles into other modes of transit that cause less air pollution, all of these things are going to be hard. And they will at minimum require change and they may also require sacrifice on our parts and behavioral change on our parts. Those are places where I think Hollywood could play a really integral role, in telling the story of the goals that we're trying to get to and why those goals are important and building buy-in for those goals, and in helping people step up to what I think is going to be a challenging moment for us as a city. I am excited to use some of the connections that I've built through my work at Time's Up Entertainment and through my campaign to continue to do that storytelling work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.