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L.A. Mayoral Campaigns Largely Financed By Westside Donors

Eric Burse, Paresh Dave, Kastalia Medrano, Stephen Zelezny |
May 16, 2013 | 12:50 a.m. PDT

This story is part of an ongoing partnership with L.A. Currents.

Almost half of the $10 million raised by this year's Los Angeles mayoral candidates comes from the Westside, an area that accounts for just 15 percent of the city’s population. 

Stretching from Bel Air to Westchester, the Westside is, by and large, home to L.A.’s most affluent households. The average median income of households with Westside zip codes is $87,000, more than any other unofficial district in the city of Los Angeles.

“A lot of the money going toward the mayoral candidates is coming from a few specific zip codes that aren't representative of the city the mayor would be elected to represent,” said Anjuli Kronheim, an organizer for the fair-government advocacy group California Common Cause.

The Westside’s outsized influence in the mayoral election stands in stark contrast with the neighborhoods that make up San Fernando. The Valley accounts for 35 percent of the city’s population and is the second wealthiest district (a calculation based on the average of median incomes of zip codes in a district). But the Valley donated just 19 percent of the $10 million raised by the five major candidates during the primary and runoff election combined.

These figures were drawn from an analysis of campaign finance records by USC Annenberg students and Professor Dana Chinn. The analysis included only those donors with addresses listed within city limits. Candidates' donations to their own campaigns were excluded.

South L.A., the Valley, and the Westside — areas that are home to 70 percent of the city's population — donated a combined 70 percent of the locally raised money. But residents and groups in South L.A. and the Valley donate disproportionately less than the Westside.

The breakdown of donor dollars to zip code in this year’s election is similar to that of the 2001 and 2005 mayoral elections, the last two competitive mayoral races.

Explanations for the disparate amount of political contributions are varied. “The Valley is geographically isolated from the rest of Los Angeles,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at California State University, Northridge, and author of Local Politics: A Practical Guide to Governing at the Grassroots. “People up here don’t really go to Downtown to socialize or to participate in local politics.”

Eric Garcetti, one of the candidates in the runoff, said no amount of money would buy someone a seat at the table with him, suggesting that where the donations come from isn’t of interest to him.

“I feel just as beholden to somebody who didn't donate to me or to somebody who isn't even a citizen,” he said. 

Garcetti has amassed more donations and more lower-amount donations than his opponent Controller Wendy Greuel. Greuel declined multiple requests for comment in-person and through email.

Parke Skelton, the campaign strategist who led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to two victories, said that wealthy residents in the Valley are typically more conservative than Westside residents making it difficult for Democratic candidates to attract these donors. In the primary, the sole Republican was Kevin James. The money James and fellow candidate Jan Perry raised from the Valley during the primary appears to have migrated to Garcetti. Greuel's share of Valley donations held steady from the primary to the run off and she received $1 out of every $2 donated. Greuel is a life long resident of the Valley.

Hogen-Esch said the neighborhoods of Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Tarzana, and Woodland Hills may donate at comparable rates to the Westside, but he suggested that the data starts to take a turn once the conservative neighborhoods of Sunland-Tujunga, Granada Hills, and Chatsworth are included.

“You just can’t imagine a conservative Republican getting out her checkbook to donate to Wendy Greuel,” Hogen-Esch said.
All told, about 60 percent of the 19,000 people who made contributions during the primary season listed addresses located within the city of Los Angeles. More than 90 percent of the money raised came from people who live in the Westside, the Valley, Hollywood, Wilshire, or Downtown.

About 8 percent of the donations came from the regions referred to as South L.A., East L.A., and the Harbor districts. Some pockets in Harbor and South L.A. have some of the city’s highest median incomes and account for 37 percent of the city’s population. Yet their influence in city elections, when it comes to political donations, is minimal.

Hogen-Esch said candidates might be missing out on an untapped financial resource by concentrating most of their fundraising in the Westside and the Valley.

“Political giving is obviously going to be associated with higher incomes, and there might be some cultural biases about, ‘Let’s go to where the money is and has normally been,’” he said. 

Skelton, the campaign strategist, noted that County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was able to raise significant sums in South L.A. But Ridley-Thomas' endorsement of Greuel appears to have given her only a minor boost. In the primary, City Councilwoman Jan Perry received about half the money raised in South L.A., while Greuel received 31 percent and Garcetti 17 percent. In the run-off, Greuel raised slightly more than Garcetti but combined they received $11 thousand less than Perry did alone, suggesting that the candidates may be missing out on an opportunity.

Residents in the areas recognize they’re being outspent.

“We’re very far away from the city of L.A.,” said Joeann Valle, executive director of the Harbor City/Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce. “Our little vote here in Harbor City is certainly not going to elect a mayor.” 

The Harbor area has 8 percent of the city’s population but contributed just 2 percent of the money raised locally.

Campaign finance experts say that most donations are given to influence candidates or gain access.

“There’s this question of why we give money,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. “Is it legalized bribery, or do we just support candidates and expect nothing in return, or is it okay to expect something in return?” 

She said figuring out who's donating what and to whom is an important step in figuring out donors’ motivations.

Overshadowing this data are the millions of dollars poured into the election by Super PACS that are not subject to restrictions on amounts donated. The major restriction on Super PACS is that they are prohibited from coordinating strategy with the candidates.

“A lot of this (Super PAC money) is going to remain opaque when it comes to truly understanding who’s financing the election,” Hogan-Esch said.
Despite the obvious influence of donor dollars from the more affluent pockets of the Los Angeles community, money alone won’t win the election.
“Campaign contributions are only one form of involvement in the broader spectrum of political activism,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

 With just days to go before voters head to the polls, both Garcetti and Gruel have been tireless in their pursuit of donor dollars. But with voter turnout expected to mirror that of the primary — a meager 21 percent — the 42nd mayor of Los Angeles may be the candidate who has the most effective get-out-the-vote strategy.

Reach the reporting team here.



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