Paul Krekorian, greeting poll workers, spent about $28 per vote. He had… (Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles…)
If there was a lesson in Tuesday's special election for the Los Angeles City Council seat previously held by City Controller Wendy Greuel, it was that money is no guarantee in a low-turnout city race.
In an outcome that stunned some at City Hall, Assemblyman Paul Krekorian sailed to a 57%-43% victory over former film executive Christine Essel even though powerful independent groups, including the union that represents Department of Water and Power workers, set a record by spending more than $900,000 on her behalf.
During the runoff campaign, Essel and her independent backers spent about $156 swaying each of the 8,304 voters who cast ballots for her. By comparison, Krekorian and the groups supporting him spent $28 per voter.
"I think people thought it was an over-the-top amount of spending by all the powers that be at City Hall," said Councilman Paul Koretz, who endorsed Krekorian and waged his own fierce fight for his Westside council seat earlier this year. "That communicated to them that Chris wouldn't be a reformer, wouldn't take on special interests and that Paul was the candidate that would."
Neighborhood leaders who lined up behind Krekorian zeroed in on the hefty sum spent by the DWP union, which recently negotiated a five-year package of raises at a time when other city employees received pay cuts. Some of those same activists campaigned earlier this year against Measure B, a solar energy ballot plan advanced by the DWP employees union.
With rising electricity bills, bursting city water pipes and new watering restrictions, Krekorian made the union's support of Essel an issue.
Jack McGrath, a past president of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce who voted for Essel, said the frustration with the DWP within the district was palpable.
"Their rates keep going up, now they've ruined all of our lawns," McGrath said. The attitude of many in the district, he said, is "we don't want to have anything to do with the DWP other than we have to take their water and their electricity."
But Bob Cherry, a consultant to the DWP union, disputed the notion that support by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, was a factor. "If you go to neighborhood councils you'll hear people complaining about that, but the fact remains that people appreciate the workers that work for DWP," he said. "They are held high in public regard, they've kept the lights on and water running in this city for a long time."
Krekorian, a state legislator since 2006, had the obvious advantage of name recognition in a district that stretches from Sherman Oaks and Studio City to Tujunga. Essel had never run for office. Krekorian's Assembly district overlapped with a third of the residents in the 2nd Council District.
Essel ran a jobs-focused campaign that touted her endorsement by Greuel and a majority of the City Council. Krekorian assembled a list of more than 100 neighborhood supporters and drafted some of them to write letters to voters in their communities, which were hand-addressed by campaign volunteers.
Although the candidates took similar stances on many development issues, Krekorian repeatedly argued that Essel's service on the city's Community Redevelopment Agency board and the Central City Assn., would endanger open space in the 2nd District.
"Fairly or unfairly, Paul got cast as more of the neighborhood community candidate and Chris got cast as more of the downtown candidate," said political consultant Bill Carrick.
Once you drive north of the Hollywood Hills, Carrick said, "You just basically have people who feel a deep grievance about being left out of the decision-making process in downtown."
Krekorian also built a formidable campaign to vote by mail. Among the 19,170 votes cast, 57% were absentee ballots. His support was particularly strong in the Armenian community.
Cherry said that when he reviewed absentee ballot data last week, voters with Armenian surnames made up nearly a quarter of the voters. "He was well-known in that community and they mobilized it to turn out the vote," Cherry said. " . . . In a low-turnout election, if any one group turns out in big numbers they can really change the dynamic of the race."