Nonetheless, there are plenty of politicians and wealthy interests who don’t want to hinder the unimpeded flow of money in our elections. Why? Because it helps them win, or so they think.
This year’s L.A. City primaries throws cold water on that thinking. To be sure, the money flowed in L.A. elections like it never flowed before, but messaging and community bonds, not money, won the day on June 7.
Billionaire dollars and over $13 million in independent expenditures (super PAC money) for City Hall races didn’t produce the results moneyed interests wanted.
Billionaire real estate developer, Rick Caruso, spent an unprecedented $40.9 million in his bid for Mayor and still finished 50,000 votes behind his runoff challenger, U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass, who spent one-twelfth of what Caruso did.
In the race for City Controller, L.A. City Councilman, Paul Koretz, came in a distant second to Green Party candidate, Kenneth Mejia, despite Koretz out-fundraising Mejia by $400,000 and outspending him by $200,000 (the bulk of Mejia’s funds came from L.A.’s public matching funds program).
In L.A.’s 13th Council District, incumbent City Councilman, Mitch O’Ferrall, finished the primary trailing labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez by nine percentage points despite out-fundraising and out-spending Soto-Martinez by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Newcomer, Erin Darling, placed a comfortable first in the open 11th District council race despite four opponents each outspending him by hundreds or thousands of dollars.
In the open District 5 race, corporate-free candidate, Katy Young Yaroslavsky, garnered 11,000 more votes than her runoff opponent who spent $300,000 more than she did and benefited from nearly $1 million in independent expenditures.
And perhaps most surprising, L.A. Councilman and veteran politician, Gil Cedillo, lost a bid for a third term in Council District 1 to abolitionist, Eunisses Hernandez, despite a $300,000 fundraising advantage and over $1.2 million in independent expenditure support.
To be sure, many things could be at play here, and the tables could turn in the November runoffs, but the results are too prominent to be dismissed as lightning in a bottle. L.A.’s June primary compels us to consider two passé notions: 1) messaging is more important than unlimited money in politics, and 2) campaign finance reforms work.
It is more than a coincidence that L.A.’s election landscape changed in 2020 after the City increased its public funding match-rate for local campaigns from 2:1 to 6:1. That means City Hall now provides a qualifying candidate with six public dollars for every private dollar they fundraise from within the City. Since its implementation, L.A.’s elections have become more competitive; more races are going to runoffs and more incumbents are losing than in previous decades.
Case in point, there were three L.A. City Council runoffs in 2020 and four in 2022 compared to an average of 1.6 for all other L.A. City Council elections in the twenty-first century. Similarly, for the first time since 2003, an incumbent city councilmember (David Ryu) lost re-election in 2020. One incumbent (Gil Cedillo) has already lost re-election in 2022 and another (Mitch O’Ferrall) faces a difficult runoff.
Other reforms are also likely playing a role, such as L.A.’s modest contribution limits, which induce fundraising from a broad base of donors, and the City aligning its elections with even-year state primaries, which increases voter-turnout. But it is becoming harder to deny that the City’s commitment to campaign finance reform is not paying off. To be sure, you can’t win an L.A. election without raising a modest amount of money, but with a strong message, a well-organized ground game, and community support, you now have a fighting chance against billionaires and industry-backed candidates in Los Angeles.
In the second-largest city in the U.S. with the largest city council districts in the country, campaign finance reforms are working — even as independent expenditures flow. Remember that the next time a politician tells you that campaign finance reform is futile.
(Sean McMorris is the Transparency, Ethics & Accountability Program Manager at California Common Cause and the founder and chapter president of Represent.US: Los Angeles-San Gabriel Valley. Sean has degrees in political science and international affairs. His views are his own.)