Mitch O'Farrell, who is leading in the race to replace Eric Garcetti,… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Three veterans from Sacramento were making strong showings Tuesday in the Los Angeles City Council election, with two pulling ahead of their opponents and a third headed to a possible runoff in the San Fernando Valley, according to partial returns.
In a year of sweeping change for the council, state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) was leading former council deputy Ana Cubas in the race to represent part of South Los Angeles, with nearly one-third of the precincts counted. On the Eastside, former Assemblyman Gil Cedillo was ahead of council aide Jose Gardea in the contest to replace Councilman Ed Reyes.
And in a special election in the Valley, partial returns showed former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez with a wide margin over school board member Nury Martinez in the race to replace Councilman Tony Cardenas, who is now in Congress. But with early returns showing neither candidate with a majority, the two could be headed for a July 23 runoff.
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If Montañez, Price and Cedillo ultimately win, eight of the council's 15 seats will be held by former lawmakers from Sacramento. That scenario "would be a great thing and an incredible counterbalance to term limits," said Cedillo, who has served in the Assembly and state Senate.
With Sacramento veterans making up a majority on the council, "you would have people who understand local problems and how they relate in a state, national and global context," he said. "You would have people who are accustomed to collaborating in the best interest of the city while being mindful of their responsibility to their districts."
In a fourth contest, Mitch O'Farrell, a former aide to Councilman Eric Garcetti, was slightly ahead of onetime city commissioner John Choi with more than half of the precincts counted. That race, which takes in neighborhoods stretching from Echo Park to Hollywood, has been the nastiest of the contests this year, with allegations of voter fraud, gunplay and homophobia.
Choi contends that O'Farrell campaign workers tricked Armenian-speaking voters as they helped them fill out ballots, an allegation that has sparked an investigation by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. O'Farrell has disputed that claim while asserting that Choi's supporters told residents not to vote for him because he is gay.
The elections are playing out in a year of major turnover on the council. By the end of the summer, seven new council members will take office, the most significant change since 2001.
Earlier this year, voters picked former council aide Mike Bonin to represent the city's coastal neighborhoods and selected two others from Sacramento — Assemblyman Robert Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) and former Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes — to represent portions of the West and East Valley, respectively. All three contests were won without a runoff campaign.
With so many seats up for grabs, money was an especially potent factor this year. Price received a major boost of more than $1.1 million from "independent expenditure" contributors — labor unions, billboard companies and other donors who can ignore campaign spending limits as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with the candidates. Price, who was running to replace Councilwoman Jan Perry, said the money showed he has the confidence of various leaders.
"They recognize that I'm someone they can work with, someone with a history of building relationships and getting the job done," Price said.
Cubas tried to turn Price's financial advantage against him by focusing on contributions to him by companies that make cigarettes, sell billboard space and provide payday loans. "I was outspent four to one," she said, adding: "Almost every billboard had my opponent's name on it."
The Price-Cubas contest was waged on the eastern end of South Los Angeles in district that is nearly 80% Latino but has strong turnout by African American voters. In Reyes' district, stretching from Westlake to Highland Park, Cedillo had the backing of the county Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. That combination helped deliver more than $800,000 in unlimited donations for Cedillo, compared with more than $90,000 for Gardea.
Gardea had aligned himself more with community groups by opposing digital billboards in the district and a planned Wal-Mart grocery store in Chinatown.
In the race to replace Garcetti, Choi benefited from more than $750,000 in unlimited money, all but a tiny amount of it from groups backed by organized labor. Choi, a former appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said he showed that voters "want a voice" in the city. Throughout the campaign, he portrayed O'Farrell as a tool of real estate developers and a proponent of police layoffs.
O'Farrell disputed those characterizations and warned that Choi was not yet ready for the job. "There's a clear choice in this election," O'Farrell said. "And I think people feel that it's an asset to have someone as familiar as I am" with the district.
In the six-way contest in the Valley, Montañez credited her first-place finish to voters who want her to end the "neglect" of the district.
"I don't know if we win 50% plus 1 tonight, but I know we will continue to build momentum and win on July 23, and finally start fixing streets and sidewalks and parks and other things that people have been telling me for months they want fixed," she said.
Times staff writers Stephen Ceasar, Jason Song, Matt Stevens and Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.