Four months after the longest and arguably the most exciting presidential race in recent history, Los Angeles residents will soon go back to the ballot box to select new representatives or grant the incumbents another term.
Local races for three Los Angeles entities — City Council, school board and the community college district — have stimulated voter interest. Two incumbents are on the ballot this year and one race features two relative contenders.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl will be seeking another four years on the council and his lone challenger is Harry “Craig” Wilson, an employee of the Department of Water and Power who has never held public office.
The school board campaign features two Los Angeles Unified School District educators. Steve Zimmer, an English and history teacher at John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, is running against Michael Stryer, who teaches advanced placement history at Fairfax High School. Marlene Canter, who represents District 4, chose not to run for reelection.
Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University and the school’s director of the Center of Los Angeles, has followed both local races. He feels that a challenger has to accomplish a number of things in order to overcome the built-in advantages of incumbency.
“A challenger has to focus on an issue that resonates with a community and it has to be one that the community is already paying attention to,” Guerra told The Argonaut.
The professor recalled the 1987 local council race between Ruth Galanter and then incumbent Councilwoman Pat Russell.
“Ruth Galanter was able to focus on proposed development near Playa Vista, which was an issue that resonated with many people on the Westside,” noted Guerra, a frequent radio and television commentator on politically themed programs.
Galanter upset Russell and served four terms representing Westchester and the beachside communities on the Westside.
Rosendahl said in a recent interview that there was a different feel to his campaign this time as opposed to when he ran for public office for the first time in 2005.
“As an incumbent, you have the platform of engaging almost everyday with your constituents, so it’s almost like being in a constant campaign,” the councilman acknowledged.
Wilson has based his campaign primarily on addressing what he feels is the proliferation of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States and the crimes that they allegedly commit. He also favors passing Jamiel’s Law.
Voters also need to think of a challenger as someone who is authentic as well, Guerra said, in addition to displaying an ability to raise money in order to compete in district-wide advertising campaigns. To date, Rosendahl has far outpaced Wilson in collecting campaign contributions.
“You have to be able to raise money in order to get your message out,” Guerra said.
In the campaign’s final week, Wilson expressed optimism that he could win the election. “I fully expect to win this thing,” he said.
Neither of the candidates for the school board seat has held public office before, so they are looking for other factors to help them prevail in the race.
Zimmer said that he is pleased with the way that the campaign has been run. “I’m proud to be a candidate in this race,” said the Marshall High teacher. I think that it has been a very positive campaign.”
Guerra thinks that in local races, especially when the candidates are somewhat unknown to voters, endorsements can be crucial.
“When candidates do not have a lot of name recognition, people look for cues to provide them information about the candidate,” said the LMU professor. “And endorsements can provide those cues.”
“I think that all of these endorsements provide proof that I can be an effective, independent school board member,” he said.
Both candidates have lined up some impressive endorsements.
Zimmer is backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and United Teachers of Los Angeles, LAUSD’s largest teachers union
Stryer has the support of Rosendahl, state Senator Fran Pavley and The Los Angeles Times.
They each scored late endorsements as well — Zimmer from Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and Canter announced her support for Stryer on February 23rd.
Guerra characterized the council race as “totally uninteresting” due largely to an incumbent that is well-liked and an unknown contender.
“(Rosendahl) has much stronger name recognition and (Wilson) has not developed any type of following,” he said.
The school board campaign is much different, the professor says, because the candidates seem more evenly matched.
“Education is one of the primary concerns of Los Angeles voters,” Guerra pointed out. “Although the candidates are not well known, it’s much more of an interesting race.”
Election Day is Tuesday, March 3rd.