John Choi, left, a candidate for the L.A. City Council in District 13, talks… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
When two groups supporting rival Los Angeles City Council candidates met on a street in Little Armenia last week, an afternoon of vote canvassing turned into an altercation.
Two 17-year-old campaign workers for candidate John Choi claim they were stopped and threatened with violence by two men who are backing Mitch O'Farrell, Choi's opponent in the 13th Council District race. They allege that after they called a supervisor to come to the scene, a third man then approached and brandished a gun.
Supporters of O'Farrell deny that account, saying it was the Choi workers who sparked the confrontation by falsely claiming that a prominent Armenian American leader had endorsed Choi. They insist they have nothing to do with the man who flashed the gun.
The incident, which is being investigated by police, marks a rough-and-tumble turn in the race to replace Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is now running for mayor.
For months, the narrative of the council election has focused on the differences between O'Farrell, who served on Garcetti's council staff for 10 years, and Choi, a former labor leader and Board of Public Works commissioner. But the skirmish last week has focused attention on Little Armenia, a working-class neighborhood east of Hollywood that has emerged as a battleground for votes.
During the crowded primary campaign, candidate Sam Kbushyan surprised many in the political establishment when he came in third, placing higher than several other contenders with more money and City Hall support.
Kbushyan credits his good showing with his effort to register nearly 3,000 new voters in the Little Armenia neighborhood. But with him out of the race, those votes are up for grabs. "It's like somebody found a gold mine," said, Kbushyan, who is now backing O'Farrell and has asked his supporters to do the same.
It was his father and another former supporter who were involved in last Monday's dispute. Kbushyan says his father is "a civilized man" and would never threaten the teenagers, but Choi's campaign has seized on the incident, calling a news conference Friday at the spot on Normandie Avenue where the confrontation occurred.
Speaking to journalists, Choi asked for an apology from O'Farrell and demanded that he "get his campaign under control." Choi supporter Sandra Figueroa Villa, who runs an Echo Park nonprofit, criticized O'Farrell for "using violence and intimidation tactics."
An O'Farrell spokeswoman said the Choi campaign is giving out false information and emphasized that O'Farrell does not condone violence. "He would never promote violence, ever," said spokeswoman Renee Nahum. "It's dangerous for Mr. Choi to make these kinds of claims."
She noted that Monday's incident was not the only allegation of electoral intimidation that has emerged from the community in recent weeks.
The O'Farrell campaign has compiled written testimony from several voters who say they were told not to support O'Farrell because he is gay. The campaign also asserts that Choi canvassers have been falsely telling voters that Kbushyan has endorsed Choi.
In the meantime, a business owner who put a Choi campaign sign in his window claims he was told to take it down because Choi is "anti-Armenian." Choi supporters say other voters say they have been told the same thing.
Both campaigns deny the others' accusations. But tensions have reached such a point that Councilman Paul Krekorian, an Armenian American who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley, issued a statement Friday calling for peace.
Krekorian, who has endorsed Choi, said he hopes both candidates "work together to prevent any more intimidation tactics." In an interview, he said allegations of intimidation are worrisome because some Armenian immigrants came to the United States with a deep distrust of the democratic political process.
On the council, Krekorian has passed legislation requiring the city to conduct voter outreach in Armenian communities in an effort to convince people "that they have nothing to fear by exercising their rights," he said. "It infuriates me when a few would try to subvert that growth and that empowerment."
The recent conflicts underscore the complexity of the 13th Council District, which stretches from Hollywood to Echo Park. The district takes in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods such as Silver Lake and Atwater Village as well as Thai Town, Little Bangladesh and Historic Filipinotown.
The O'Farrell campaign alleges that the political battle unfolding in Little Armenia has more to do with existing divisions within the community than it does with the candidates.
Although many Armenians who live in east Hollywood immigrated from Armenia and Russia, many of those who live in Pasadena and Glendale migrated from Lebanon, Iran or other places where Armenians settled after genocide in the early 1900s. Those groups don't always get along, and O'Farrell supporters have accused Choi's campaign of bringing in Armenians from other parts of the city to sway the local election. Choi's campaign says it has many local campaign workers, as well.
With less than a month left before the May 21 election, and mail-in ballots going out to voters, both campaigns are stepping up their ground game in Little Armenia. Last week Choi and O'Farrell both appeared at events marking the Armenian genocide, and at Choi's headquarters at Hollywood Boulevard and Wilton Place, campaign workers have prominently displayed a list of "Armenian talking points."
The candidates will be face to face May 5 at a forum in Silver Lake.