Last September, when Ethan Weaver posted a poll saying he was in a “dead heat” with Nithya Raman, it was seen by some political groups as a message to deep-pocketed special interests to help unseat the incumbent.

Weaver, a deputy city attorney running for the 4th Council District seat, had not yet raised much money of his own. But the poll graphic that he posted on social media on Sept. 27, 2023, seemingly showed that Raman could be vulnerable. In all, outside interests spent nearly $1.4 million trying to remove Raman from a district that encompasses southern parts of the San Fernando Valley and parts of the Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz and Silver Lake.

“Clearly (the poll graphic) was intended to draw IEs (independent expenditure committees) into the race, saying, ‘Hey, police union, hey, landlords, it’s worth going after her, you might have a chance,’” said David Levitus, executive director of LA Forward, a group that advocates for progressive candidates and policies.

Raman needed at least 50% plus one of the total votes in the March 5 primary to avoid a runoff with Weaver. She ended up getting over that threshold and has since won a second term – but she only did it by a few hundred votes.

The police union independent expenditure committee that spent to oppose Raman and to support Weaver was heavily funded by Douglas Emmett, a real estate investment and management company that was recently in the news for going forward with a mass eviction at the Barrington Plaza apartment tower on the Westside.

To fight back against those outside expenditures, LA Forward set up a committee to support Raman. The group spent more than $260,000 on a series of mailers for Raman in February. They also collaborated with Unite Here Local 11, a union that knocked on doors to elect Raman. The union spent more than $100,000 on a field program.

Given the slim margin that allowed her to win the race outright in the March 5 primary, Levitus of LA Forward, one of the coordinators of independent expenditures meant to support Raman, said it was hard not to believe that counter-efforts by outside groups to boost Raman’s own campaign efforts made some difference.

“I’d have to believe that it was a real difference,” Levitus said. “Our first mailer piece went out on February 1, so we hit people when they were starting to get their ballots.”

Even though Raman was an incumbent, she was vulnerable because her district had changed significantly in the 2021 redistricting. She had 40% of the voters in her district change when she was first elected, by far the biggest shift of the city’s 15 districts. In particular, she lost renter-heavy areas in Koreatown where she had a voter base. Her district also lost parts of Hollywood and Silver Lake.

In leaked audio tapes that were secretly recorded, then-City Council president Nury Martinez, and other City Council officials were heard discussing removing renter-heavy neighborhoods from Raman’s district, weakening her ability to get re-elected.

According to Levitus, the poll posted by Weaver was likely what eventually drew landlord and police union spending to support Weaver and oppose Raman’s campaign. 

‘I wish IEs didn’t exist’

Raman was the target of the police union, largely funded by real estate and property interests. The union’s political action committee, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, put out attack ads that were funded with $400,000 from Douglas Emmett Management, a real estate company.

Meanwhile, Thrive LA, a fledgling group formed last November — not long after Weaver posted his poll graphic — spent more than $300,000 on ads and other political communications to oppose Raman and support Weaver. According to an article in the Nation, written by former City Council member Mike Bonin and Occidental politics professor Peter Dreier (who is considered an “architect” of Measure ULA, commonly referred to as the “mansion tax,” that voters passed in 2022), the group’s goal was to challenge Raman, setting the “stage to go after progressives in 2026.”

Their article pointed to Raman’s legislative support of measures aimed at protecting renters and to her pushing back on the role of policing, especially around laws targeting unhoused Angelenos.

LA Public Press reached out to Thrive LA for comment but did not receive a response.

In response to the onslaught of attacks, Unite Here Local 11, a hotel workers union that canvassed to turn out residents in renter-heavy areas to vote for Raman. 

The union was involved in recent policy efforts at LA city hall, including the Responsible Hotel Ordinance, which aims to make hotel rooms available to unhoused residents, and prevent hotel developments from displacing affordable housing. Kurt Petersen, the president of the union, said that their members were also involved in collecting a large share of the signatures for Measure ULA, which generates funds through a so-called mansion tax on luxury development, in order to pay for housing for people who are now unhoused. 

“We support candidates who are champions of workers and renters,” Petersen said, and when their union saw that redistricting had dealt Raman a “ridiculously corrupt hand” and that landlords were rallying against her, “our members … our executive board voted to go forward with an independent expenditure (committee). And, you know, we didn’t even think twice about it. And we felt like we have to do whatever it takes to help her prevail.”

While some progressive campaigns have been able to win based on a heavy emphasis on door-knocking, Levitus said it can be more difficult to combat the scale of independent spending based on a candidate campaign’s ground game alone.

“I wish IEs didn’t exist,” he said. “Citizens United made them possible. The people that we were battling  – the landlords and the police unions –- they spent a ton of money. And so that’s just the reality,” he said, referring to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed companies to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

“I’m resigned that we just need to fight back. We need to fight fire with fire. We can’t surrender,” Levitus said. 

With the challenge against Raman being seen as a weathervane for the strength of LA’s progressive politics, Levitus said that the poor showing by committees aiming to unseat Raman could dampen future efforts, at least by Thrive LA, which had touted ambitious plans for future elections. 

The month before the election, former City Councilman Mike Bonin and politics professor Peter Dreier wrote that Thrive LA was setting the stage for conservative influences in Los Angeles to reshape the city. “The business and political elite view the campaign as the first battle in a war to reverse the growing influence of progressives in LA,” they wrote for The Nation. 

“Thrive made a lot of big promises about how they were going to take down Nithya Raman and then go after other progressives on the council 2026,” Levitus said. “And they failed at that.”

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.

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