LA Politics: What Will it Take to Beat the Machine?

BELL VIEW-In 2009, I got involved in my first unsuccessful attempt to put an independent voice on the LA City Council. I didn’t run. A guy I’d met on the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council – a Harvard lawyer, a treasurer for two neighborhood councils, a community activist, and an all-around good guy – decided to challenge the incumbent councilmember. 

We lost in a landslide. At the election night get together in a small booth in a Thai Restaurant in East Hollywood, someone said “you just can’t beat the machine.” 

I thought – “machine?” I grew up in Chicago, where the Democratic Party built by the first Mayor Daley created a machine like no other. Daley would start the election with a million votes in his pocket. That’s a machine. In that 2009 LA City Council election, the incumbent won with a little more than 8,000 votes.

After that, I was snake bit. Eight thousand votes! This is doable, I thought. So, two years later, I worked my heart out for another candidate against an incumbent in another district.

Yeah – we lost. 

In that race, two supremely-qualified candidates went up against an incumbent that could barely put two words together. Between the two candidates, we couldn’t force a runoff.

This year, I supported an old friend of mine from my neighborhood council days who decided to make a run for it. The truth is: I liked three candidates in that race. On Election Day, I stood outside a polling place (beyond the 100-foot barrier) and passed out fliers for my friend. The cordiality of the voters heading in to vote that day really surprised me. I know how it is: I never want to talk to strangers on the street about anything. But the voters I met – with a few exceptions – were overwhelmingly polite, and a large proportion of them actually stopped to talk with me.

The conversation usually went something like this: I would talk about my friend, what he’d done for the community, and why I thought he would make a great City Councilmember. If I sensed I’d gotten through to them, I’d hand them a flier and they would be on their way. But, if I didn’t feel like I’d closed the deal on my friend, I had one last pitch. 

“You know,” I’d say as they were walking away from me, “there’s only one woman on the LA City Council.” Invariably, they would turn around. “That’s right,” I’d say, “one woman. And there are two women running today. I like them both, but I like one better than the other, and here’s why.”

I can’t tell you how many people I turned that day. I just don’t know. But, among the small percentage of Angelenos who actually go to the polling place on Election Day to cast their votes – the issue of women in government is on their minds.

That’s why Tuesday’s special congressional election in the 34th district is so disappointing. I don’t live in the district, so I couldn’t vote. But of the 300,000 registered voters who do, less than 30,000 of them bothered to vote at all. Of the 24 candidates, 12 of them were women. In the end, the two top fundraisers – both men – made it into the runoff. 

Without commenting on the merits of the two contenders, it’s a shame that in a year when the country elected a misogynist president; when we have a vice president who will not sit down with another woman outside the presence of his wife; when the fate of women’s healthcare is decided by a roomful of men – that barely 10% of the electorate could even bother to vote in an election that presented a dozen opportunities to put a woman in the U.S. Congress.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand people marched in the streets of Los Angeles for The Women’s March following the presidential election. Where did everyone go?


(David Bell is a writer, attorney, former president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and writes for CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.