By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Second of two parts
The candidates for Los Angeles City Council District 14 spoke at a forum sponsored by the Little Tokyo Community Council on Feb. 6 at the Japanese American Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.
The election will be held on March 3. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff on Nov. 3.
The district, which includes Downtown, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, Highland Park and Eagle Rock, is currently represented by Jose Huizar, who is termed out. The five candidates are Kevin De Leon, Monica Garcia, John Jimenez, Cyndi Otteson and Raquel Zamora.
The candidates’ responses to questions from the Little Tokyo community have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: The city has a history of approving zoning changes that allow developers to build market-rate housing without requiring affordable housing on site. As the city updates its downtown community plan, will you ensure that it includes requirements for affordable housing related to resident incomes?
Zamora: For far too long there’s been elected officials who have been beholden to developers and special interests, and I am a grassroots candidate. I’m not beholden to those interests … It’s important that we … ensure that in market-rate housing, there’s affordable housing for community members … our children, families, seniors and veterans, particularly seniors that are living on fixed incomes. They’ve worked their whole lives, we can’t give them the street.
There’s children and families that are one paycheck away from being homeless. There has to be affordable housing and we have to ensure that there’s units set aside that ensure that the families that are most in need have affordable housing and they stay in their communities.
Jimenez: Developers are vampires … they want to go and suck the blood of people, money they’ve paid for for a long time, worked hard for it when they retired and then the city, they use the city to do public domain. It’s not right. I don’t like that. That’s why I don’t want to have any kind of ties with developers or even with lobbyists …
I would support the community, senior citizens and the veterans especially, because on Skid Row there’s veterans that they’re not paying attention to and they need help. It’s sad that they fought for this country, for our freedom, and they’re on Skid Row with physical and mental problems.
Garcia: I can absolutely commit that we have to make sure that there’s affordable housing but we have to do more than that. In Boyle Heights when we started seeing multi-family units build of affordable housing, the neighbors and the community folks rebelled because they couldn’t afford them. So if it’s 50 percent AMI [area median income] and the regular folks are making 30 percent, then we’re building to leave people out.
I’m going to call on all of us to create something that doesn’t exist right now because we’re living income inequality in a way that we have not seen … Think of the fires. When the fires are burning, we don’t say, “Where did you buy that house? Where did you get the water?” We just say, “Put it out.” I absolutely believe the kind of housing we need has to be beyond what is in the regular rules. Housing is built on economic and racial exclusion. We must address that.
Otteson: The City Council needs to treat renters like a constituency … We are all pretty much in this room closer to being homeless than we are to the wealthy 1 percent, and we need to make sure that we can keep people in their homes right now. We can’t just wait for affordable housing to be built. Make people’s housing affordable now.
So we need to explore new ideas. Temporary rent freeze. Looking at taxing the largest developers that have vacancies and using that money to fund bigger renter protections, legal right to counsel. These are ideas that can help to protect the flow of people that will become homeless …
Not every developer is bad, there are good developers, there are bad developers. When I was on the Neighborhood Council, we had every single developer come and meet with us, and when we did, we knew the ones that were trying to do something shady. The ones that we could work with, we would negotiate really hard to say, “If you are going to come here, we are going to make sure that this is a net benefit for the families and our neighborhood.”
We need to make sure that there are no backroom deals and we have to be able to speak to planning in the language that it understands. So to be able to empower people in the neighborhood to make sure that they can say no to specific things.
De Leon: I think if we allow the market forces to continue as they are today as the status quo, the inequities will get bigger and bigger. That’s borne out today as we see the housing crisis, when we see families that are being displaced by gentrification. Or perhaps an equity firm comes in and purchases the whole apartment building … If you’ve lived there for 30, 40 years, even if you pay the rent on time every single month, if they get someone with a great FICA score and incredible disposable income, that’s what they want. They’ll double, triple or quadruple the rent.
So what … the next councilmember needs to do is lead with intentionality and a sense of purpose, statutorily moving policies that protect those who currently are housed from hemorrhaging, but also dealing with the issue of either being inclusionary, and I know a lot of developers do not like inclusionary … But we have a crisis. When it’s not inclusionary they have to put a substantial amount of money to a pot where we can build workforce housing …
We have to find those sites within our community, within CD 14, and make sure that we build and we build and we build for workforce development, for the teachers, for the nurses, all the professionals who have to drive two, three, four hours to get to Downtown Los Angeles.
Q: Land values and rents have increased yearly and many small Little Tokyo businesses have closed as these increased costs cannot be passed on to customers. The trend is expected to worsen with the opening of the new Metro station. What will you do to keep legacy businesses from being forced out due to gentrification?
Otteson: Unfortunately, if you don’t own it, you can’t control it … Gentrification is a blanket term that applies to so many other things – displacement, rents being so high that your small businesses get pushed out. I would be heartbroken if Fugetsu-Do ever disappeared. That would be so heartbreaking for this entire community, but we know that if building isn’t owned by somebody that is invested in this community, that wants to be actually preserving that, then we know that we’re in trouble.
The Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund, the goal is to raise $2 million because you know that that is the way that you get to ownership … But the only guaranteed way to prevent displacement is to provide some sort of economic incentive to building owners. That means to bring in new business.
When I was on the Neighborhood Council … leaders in the community had created a Colorado Boulevard-specific plan, which had design guidelines and also prevented the destruction of historic structures. We can absolutely create an HPOZ, a historic preservation overlay zone, for the Little Tokyo community, and we can actually identify historic-cultural monuments, potentially even making the entire block a historic-cultural monument. We need protection to make sure we are fighting against the large corporations that are going to come here and prioritize profit over people.
De Leon: These legacy businesses are without a doubt a cultural foundation for Little Tokyo. Here lies the challenge, because as we deal with the housing crisis and we deal with the issue of displacement, and we grapple with the various policies, whether it’s rent cap stabilization or policy at the state level capping rent at 5 percent or the issue with regard to the various propositions that are going to go on the ballot, similar to Prop. 10 in 2018, when it comes to small businesses there are no policies that elected officials at the state, local, county or federal level are actually engaging in.
This is why you need a strong leader … at the local level to push back on those large investors that are coming into town because it would be a travesty if in fact we had national chain stores in Little Tokyo. We want to preserve and we want to protect what we have today … We may not have all the legal answers right now, but … we can work together in a collaborative fashion to make sure we have a united front to preserve the legacy that is Little Tokyo.
Zamora: The topic of small businesses is very near and dear to my heart because … my family has had a business in Boyle Heights for 50 years. My grandmother has worked at Olvera Street for 60 years. Last night I met with the vendors at Olvera Street, who have been vendors … for three, four, five generations. It’s very important that a councilmember is able to create policies to protect these long-term businesses because small businesses that are long-term in our communities are the identity of our communities, are the fabric, they’re the engine to our local economy …
In 2002, the Japanese American Museum held a special exhibition called “Boyle Heights: A Place of Power,” and I brought my grandfather because there was a picture of our family business displayed in that exhibition. I said, “Look, Grandpa, this is what you set down and you set forth, and you put roots here and this museum has recognized you.”
We’ve bridged together with this community because they matter, we matter, and it’s a big honor to be here because our family business came here to set roots and continue our traditions and it’s very important that you continue your traditions.
Q: CD 14 is very diverse. L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs determines funding based on neighborhoods to fairly distribute resources. Little Tokyo’s vital artistic and cultural ecosystem is often evaluated against heavily resourced neighbors on Grand Avenue. What is your approach to balance the city’s resources for arts organizations within CD 14?
Garcia: There is a unifying, universal support for arts and culture in L.A. … When we opened a school on Wilshire, young people said “hello” in 28 languages and we recognized these were not foreign languages, these were home languages. So I would absolutely work to make sure that any allocation was part of a master plan where we were investing in the multicultural communities of Los Angeles.
We all are still working to navigate mainstream culture that is represented well at the Music Center, but every year I see more communities embracing, whether it’s at Self-Help Graphics or the programming at Grand Park, it is changing from those dominant institutions. And as we invite more and more people to get involved … there’s an understanding of broadening the Los Angeles that is, so I would absolutely commit with you to work with experts and advocates to make sure we are all part of CD 14.
Otteson: Little Tokyo is 135 years old, and there is so much rich culture here. When we’re looking at Little Tokyo, it’s not hard to want to prioritize it because it’s really only one of two designated cultural spots in the entire city. So when we’re looking at prioritizing art … at culture, this is a neighborhood that we absolutely must preserve, protect and honor. The city owes us this much.
So when you have a councilmember who is invested, who understands what’s at stake, who understands the deep history, the deep inequity, it is that much more important to uplift communities that have had that struggle … You have to have a heart for wanting to provide equity and access, and we know that investing in art is making sure that it’s a vibrant neighborhood.
I used to live in the Arts District. That actually was Little Tokyo, right on Traction and Third, and every day you’d be able to walk out and see so much rich art. It makes you feel so good to have a sense of pride in the community and that is something that absolutely needs to be invested in. Also in terms of investing in our youth … making sure that we partner with local schools … with local nonprofits … with seniors, to have that rich art.
De Leon: In CD 14, we have the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We have Mark Taper. We have Disney Concert Hall. We have the Broad Museum and we have MOCA … I had the incredible honor and privilege when I raised my right hand to take the oath for the very first time, to be sworn in just a few blocks from here at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. I had the honor for my brother Warren Furutani to be the master of ceremonies.
The point I want to make here is this. It is about equity, it’s about intentionality and using your power to make sure there is an equitable distribution of the resources when it comes to cultural arts programming for the city of L.A. The Japanese American National Museum is a national museum. Unlike the Smithsonian, which is based in Washington, D.C. … it is based here in Los Angeles, where we have the largest Japanese American population in the United States of America. It is here for a reason …
You have to speak truth to power with intentionality, making sure in the budget that you use that power … You need a champion with the experience and leadership who’s going to say we’re going to make sure there’s an equitable distribution of those resources so everyone can know about the arts in Little Tokyo.
Zamora: I’m a very proud mother of a 4-year-old, and traditions and culture and art are very important. It’s very important that we keep sharing our stories … CD 14 is one of the most diverse in all the city of Los Angeles. We have Little Tokyo … the second-oldest neighborhood in this city. But we also have the birthplace of Los Angeles, which is El Pueblo. We have Boyle Heights, we have so much diversity and it’s very important that there is funding. As your councilmember I am committed to ensuring that there’s funding for arts and cultural festivities throughout the district.
Jimenez: I think everybody should hold their cultural inheritance and arts and everything in place because you have children that need to learn that … to be standing proud of their grandparents, their great-grandparents. There are funds that can be allocated throughout the 14th District … monies being generated by recycling … What happened to that money I don’t know at this point. If I get elected, I’m going to make sure we do a nice big audit and whoever has dipped into it wrongfully or mismanaged it, I’m going to make sure if there’s any criminal charges, I’m going to enforce that. The fund is for everybody, churches, nonprofit organizations … people that are homeless.
Q: Little Tokyo has benefitted from engagement with city councilmembers. They recognized our contributions to the rich diversity of culture and commerce that makes Los Angeles great. Will you continue this engagement when elected and agree to regular meetings between yourself and community representatives?
Jimenez: Definitely I would.
Otteson: Our city has a moral obligation to protect and preserve and uplift this community, so absolutely.
De Leon: I’ve committed my public service to many of the residents who are present today in the Assembly as well as the Senate. I pride myself on having an excellent staff that has provided always excellent constituent services, engagement with community organizations, with all of the stakeholders, engagement … by coming together and securing the dollars necessary for the Budokan that will open up later, actually coming here and having my swearing-in ceremony and publicly stating it was important for me to have it in Little Tokyo, in one of our oldest neighborhoods in all of the city of Los Angeles.
Because of the history of Executive Order 9066, because of the rich Japanese American history, I wanted to have it right here in Little Tokyo. So absolutely I will continue that excellent service with each and every one of you with regularly scheduled meetings … We have a lot of work to do. We have to roll up our sleeves, making sure that we’re always collaborating or on the same page.
Zamora: I’m definitely committed to continuing the engagement with the constituents and the stakeholders here in Little Tokyo. I was born and raised in Boyle Heights, which just over the bridge, and I want to ensure that there is collaboration. I’m not only your friendly neighbor but also a friend of Little Tokyo, and I want to continue to have that collaboration and accessibility.
I want you to be able to see me at your local coffee shop, eating sushi, enjoying the festivities in the neighborhood, bringing my daughter over and creating a bridge between the two communities. In 2012 there was a festival at Mariachi Plaza where our children collaborated and learned about each other’s cultures, and I want to definitely continue that bridge and continue that relationship.
Garcia: I will absolutely sit with you, learn from you. Let’s continue what’s working, let’s change what’s not. You won’t have to come to me, I will come to you, and when I became a [school] board member I had the amazing opportunity of going to Japan. It was a Sanrio-sponsored opportunity … As a board member representing diverse Los Angeles, I have visited Korea, China, Japan, Israel because I needed to be a learner. I believe our people, our communities are the best of Los Angeles. So as your elected representative, know that it is your success, your story, your engagement that will lift our families, and that would be me doing my job.
Q: Do each of the candidates promise to serve all four years if you win? Do you promise not to run for another office?
Garcia: I promise and it would be an honor.
Otteson: Yes, I absolutely promise. Being a councilmember is a full-time job and it requires your full attention. You deserve to have somebody at City Hall that is going to give you their full attention.
De Leon: I promise to give my dedicated public service the way I’ve done in the Assembly as well as the Senate. With me you will get someone who will roll up his sleeves and work tirelessly every single day for the improvement of this community.
Zamora: Absolutely yes, I am committed to serving my full term. I’m 38 years old and if I do a good job, I want to be your councilmember for three four-year terms. I want to be 50 years old and be able to go back to higher education … and inspire the next elected official, educator, social worker to serve their community … I’m here to serve and be an advocate for you.
Jimenez: Definitely yes … I’m already retired and I’ll be 78 in April. I have a lot of energy, a lot of drive, a lot of positive thinking for the community and for the people … I’ll be creative and you be creative too as well. The answers are never in one nutshell. We have to grow together … I’m going to be there for four years and you’re going to re-elect me.
Q: With so many candidates with different strengths, what sets you apart? What makes you the right choice for CD 14 residents?
Jimenez: I have 15 years of volunteer work and 30 years of paid work. Everything I have done has been great and successful. I have all kinds of certificate all the way from the president down to … the county supervisors. I work hard … What sets me apart is I’m not for sale. I don’t hang out with developers, I’m actually a straight shooter, I’m transparent, and wiser because I’m older.
Garcia: I’m 51 years old. It has been the honor of my life to serve, representing this community and 640,000 people on the school board. I’m the third Latina in 155 years. When I got to UC Berkeley, there were .07 percent Mexican American students there … I had to learn, and I could give up or keep going. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, there is only one choice — to keep going, to serve people, to give the world our best.
What you get in me is someone who is an outsider to City Hall, someone who has experienced fierce political battles that are here at the local level. I have brought resources through our building program, we have identified sites, we have done the ground-breaking and the ribbon-cutting. So not only have I brought the dollars, but I have implemented. California during my term was 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding. I came to the voters every time, saying graduation has gone up.
The only way we have demanded change of L.A. Unified is through community activism and organizing. At the core, we are fighting racism, classism and sexism. I promise to work for you every single day because my family lives here too.
Otteson: I have the right kind of experience for this job. I have the most relevant experience. I am coming at this from the grassroots up, not the top down. Every single issue that comes before the City Council comes before the Neighborhood Council first. Planning and land use, development, homelessness, public safety, education, beer and wine licenses, potholes, you name it, I’ve dealt with it. And we got stuff done. I roll up my sleeves and I get to work.
I have been a businesswoman for 20 years. I founded a nonprofit that activated over 100,000 Americans to welcome new arrival refugee families resettling in the U.S. And I did that at the heart of the refugee crisis because my heart was breaking. I have launched a startup. I was the sixth employee, grew it to 45, won multiple industry awards. And I left a lucrative career because I know what’s at stake here.
The way that we move our city forward is by electing new leaders who aren’t bought by special interests. I’m running a hundred percent clean money campaign because I’m tired of the corruption that plagues City Hall. I’m tired of the special interests that have come and controlled this council district for too long.
De Leon: I found my political voice in CD 14, actually in Boyle Heights as a community organizer and a teacher of English as a second language, U.S. history and civics, organizing at the time what was the largest march in the history of California, it was against Proposition 187.
As the youngest child of a single immigrant mother with a third-grade education, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever hold elected office. I had the honor to be the leader of the California State Senate, the first person of color, the first person of Latino origin in the history of this state. I didn’t waste any time making California 100 percent clean renewable energy, moving policies to make equal pay for women doing equal work, making California a sanctuary state against Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions …
I speak truth to power. I’ve been through all the battles you can imagine. Right now is a time for experienced leadership … With all the corruption that has taken place at City Hall, we need transparency and accountability. We need someone who’s going to stand up to all those powerful interests. Because the interests that I represent are the nurses, the firefighters, and the janitors who clean all of our offices, the women who are sexually assaulted in the evening hours in those high-rise buildings … I stand up for Sierra Club and all the environmentalists and the League of Conservation Voters … And I will stand up for each and every one of you.
Zamora: As a mother, an educator, a social worker, a businesswoman, I deeply care for CD 14. I’m raising my daughter in the same neighborhood that raised me, and there is a dire need for real representation in City Hall for the people’s best interests. I’m the only credentialed teacher that stands before you. It is important that there is trust, transparency and service for the people.
I’m not here to run for higher office. I have always rolled up my sleeves, I’ve done the work. When some have been on the top of the hill watching the battle, I’ve been on the ground as a social worker, as an educator. I have uplifted my community and it would be an honor to serve you as your councilmember.