State Sen. Curren Price has received the most of any candidate in this years… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
L.A.'s 9th City Council District is among the poorest in the city, taking in a stretch of South Los Angeles where the median household income is less than $30,000 per year.
Yet despite persistent economic woes, the district has become a hot spot for expensive campaign contributions in this year's election, with special interests from across the state spending big in the race to replace termed-out Councilwoman Jan Perry.
Labor unions, businesses, billboard companies, healthcare interests and others have spent $900,000 on unlimited "independent expenditures" for state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), the most of any candidate in this year's nine council races. Those donors can ignore the city's usual $700 contribution limit as long as they spend the money without Price's involvement.
Ana Cubas, who is running against Price, is hoping to turn that financial advantage into a weakness by highlighting Price's backers, including a payday loan company, an Inglewood racetrack owner and tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA, which have spent a combined $50,000 on Price. "If those are his friends, then that means he's not a friend of our community," said Cubas, a former aide to Councilman Jose Huizar.
Price, 62, described Cubas' comments as sour grapes from a candidate who is "in over her head."
"I'm sure she wishes she'd gotten those contributions," he said. "The fact is, I've gotten help from business and from labor. The fact that they've all come around to supporting one candidate shows they think there's one candidate with the background, training and experience to get the job done."
Big donations have been a major issue in the mayor's race, with City Hall employee unions playing a huge role in the bid to elect mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel. But campaign money has gotten less attention in the 9th District, which is nearly 80% Latino and takes in the eastern end of South L.A.
Tracking exactly who has given that money is difficult for the average voter. Among Price's biggest financial backers is the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which has fought efforts to scale back retirement benefits for city workers and pushed city officials to impose new environmental and wage regulations on private trash-hauling companies.
The federation spent at least $262,000 so far on Price's behalf from its campaign committees, including one called the Coalition for Better Schools and Communities. But Price is also receiving support from a similarly titled group, Better Schools and Safer Neighborhoods for Curren Price.
That group has collected $5,000 from the state's prison guards union, $10,000 from short-term lender Community Loans of America and $20,000 from Phillip Morris. The group's campaign consultant is West Coast Public Affairs, sister company of Shallman Communications.
Cubas, 42, said independent groups like Better Schools for Price should be required to post the sources of their contributions on the city's Ethics Commission's website so voters know who is behind them. And she questioned whether the very name Better Schools misleads voters. "If you look at tobacco companies, who do they target? They target our young people in high school. So clearly it's intentionally meant to fool voters," she said.
Shallman consultant Dave Jacobson issued a statement from Dr. Craig H. Kliger of the California Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, the treasurer of Better Schools. Kliger said donors to his group "care about education and public safety and believe Curren Price has demonstrated an outstanding record in both areas" as a lawmaker.
Jaime Court, president of the Santa Monica-based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said big spending by the healthcare industry in a South L.A. council race can be traced to Price's powerful position on the Senate's Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee. Price put the medical establishment on the defensive this year by seeking more aggressive investigations and discipline of dangerous doctors, he said.
"To me, this is one of those cases where your enemy wants to make you irrelevant by getting you a new job," Court said.
Price is not the only council candidate to benefit from huge unrestricted donations. On the Eastside, former Assemblyman Gil Cedillo has been buoyed by nearly $700,000 in independent expenditures so far, nearly three-fourths of it from groups backed by organized labor. And in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district, former city commissioner John Choi has been backed by nearly $595,000 in unlimited spending, 99% of it from union groups — including the labor federation, where he once worked.
Both candidates in the 9th District have a background in government. Cubas served as chief of staff to Huizar in the neighboring 14th District, which covers such communities as Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and much of downtown. Price spent a decade on the Inglewood City Council before joining the Legislature.
Price has the endorsement of Perry, who represented the district for 12 years. She contends Cubas had a major hand in cutting some of the wealthiest areas out of the district during last year's recent redistricting process —something Cubas has denied. Perry also argued that Price has more experience than his opponent.
"He is prepared to step into the job," Perry said.
Cubas has picked up the backing of county Supervisor Gloria Molina and Councilman Bernard C. Parks, represents a section of South Los Angeles just west of the 9th. Parks described Cubas as someone who will serve as a bridge builder between the district's African American and Latino residents.