(13th CD candidate Mitch O'Farrell with supporter Luis Lopez. O'Farrell won the Stonewall endorsement. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
There was tension in West Hollywood Park Auditorium Monday night as battling campaigns geared up to make pitches for Stonewall Democratic Club's endorsement in the 13th and 6th city council district races for the May 21 LA City elections. There was whispering, elbow nudging and a few outright sneers. But somewhat shockingly, there really was little acrimony or rancor or nasty swipes at a candidate's character that one has come to expect at cranked up grassroots political endorsement meetings. Perhaps most surprisingly, the candidates who lost the endorsements also felt pleased with how they had fared in the process.
The first round was the motion to endorse Mitch O'Farrell, Eric Garcetti's gay former field deputy who was the top vote getter in the March 5 primary. Each side took turns explaining why they supported O'Farrell or opposed John Choi, a Public Works Commissioner. Progressive Victory President Hans Johnson, for instance, said O'Farrell was a "progressive grassroots organizer from the ground up." He also said the endorsement was a "test" of Stonewall's purpose to leverage its power to stand behind a well-qualified openly LGBT candidate. West Hollywood City Councilmember Jeffrey Prang noted his 23 years as a Stonewall member and said that as a staffer for former LA City Councilmember Ruth Galanter, he knows that "LA is broken" and needs someone who understands how LA's neighborhoods work. Longtime Democratic activist Jimmie-Woods Gray said "we don't have time for someone to learn how to run this district" on the job. O'Farrell also spoke on his own behalf, noting that he won the March 5 Primary, has lived in the district for 21 years with his partner George Brauckman and that his family's Native American and Irish immigrant background helped him learn how to be a fighter.
Speaking against the motion and for John Choi, was Esteban Montemayor from Stonewall Young Democrats who noted that Choi has the support of Mayor Villaraigosa, the Democratic Party - "people who fight for us every single day." Choi knows that Silver Lake has the largest gay population in the city, he said, and "we don't have to pick a candidate because of labels." Stonewall Young Democrat Ari Ruiz followed up on that theme and volleyed back at Jimmie Woods-Gray. Choi is a coalition-builder with Hilda Solis and Ricardo Lara, he said. "Forget about labels. We need somebody who can get the job done from Day One." Matt Szabo, a 13th CD candidate in the March 5 Primary, said he wasn't speaking against Mitch but for his friend John Choi. He said the 13th CD is the most diverse district in the city and "needs a leader who is experienced in building coalitions. A vote for John is a vote for the future."
Steve Ferguson, an openly gay candidate for the Burbank Unified School Board - who spoke in support of Choi - was the only person who directly addressed the paper tiger in the room: donations to Choi made by antigay, pro-Prop 8 Korean Pastor Richard Shin cited in a green sheet placed on the chairs in the auditorium. Ferguson said "it's wrong" for the O'Farrell camp to use such "hate" as part of their campaign. "It's wrong to use fear-mongering to describe a candidate," he said, adding that the Choi campaign had given that donation to GLSEN.
The information cited by the O'Farrall campaign - pulled from the LA City Ethics Commission - shows that Pastors Richard Shin and Jaylong Kung of the Glory of Jesus Church and Jenny Shin, identified as an "individual homemaker," each contributed $700 to Choi's campaign, for a total of $2,100. The paper notes that Shin is the former President of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California and was an outspoken proponent of Prop 8 and against same sex marriage in 2008.
(13th CD candidate John Choi with his gay campaign manager Shaun Daniels. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Shaun Daniels, Choi's gay campaign manager, told me via email: "We actually spoke to GLSEN's development department in New York. I'm picking up the check today. We'd like to deliver it somewhere locally, but if not, it'll have to go to their HQ. GLSEN said we'd be getting a letter acknowledging the donation and we'd be listed as a major sponsor in their annual report."
Daniels said they had launched an audit of their campaign donations before they'd heard rumors that O'Farrell was calling Choi homophobic and would have found and dealt with the Shin contribution anyway.
In a quick interview at the Stonewall meeting, Choi said, "This is important to us. Of course we didn't know" about Shin's support for Prop 8. "I've supported marriage equality since Day One." He noted that he grew up in an environment where the church is the center of the community but he and others have a "different perspective," looking at marriage equality in the same light as the decades-long fight against women being considered property in a marriage and, in California in particular, where anti-miscegenation laws specifically "singled out Asian immigrants in its interracial marriage ban," as longtime ally Karin Wang of API-Equality-LA described in her post-Prop 8 blog. "It's all the same fight," Choi said.
But there may be an even larger issue with unforeseen consequences if the O'Farrell camp continues to raise the Prop 8 donation as an issue. First of all, it is logical that Asian American voters, particularly in the Korean community, might want to see the first Korean elected to the LA City Council and will donate to his campaign.
The most significant potential problem, however, is how the Asian American community might perceive this issue being pushed by gay white men in the name of politics when, in fact, the Asian American community in Los Angeles voted overwhelming against Prop 8, thanks in large part to the work of API Equality LA in coalition with other API groups. Writer Erwin De Leon addressed this point in a 2010 op-ed in the Washington Blade that eviscerated a SFWeekly blog post entitled "Korean Americans Hate Gay Marriage Most, Poll Reveals." He wrote:
The headline reeled me in, but it was the blogger's assertion that 'it's been known for some time that Asian Americans are the ethnic group most opposed to gay marriage in California' which got me going. First of all, Asian American is not an ethnic group. Rather, it is a catch-all for Americans who can trace their roots to East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia.
De Leon goes on to cite an exit poll conducted by The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles 2008 Exit Polls of the Presidential Primary and National Elections in the City of Los Angeles, which includes information LGBT politicos in LA were hearing from appropriately pleased LGBT Asian Americans who had done so much good, hard work to move their community. De Leon writes:
The results of an exit poll conducted Nov. 4 that year revealed that 64 percent of Asian American voters in Los Angeles voted against Proposition 8. Likewise, a survey by professors Patrick Egan and Kenneth Sherrill showed that 52 percent of Asian Americans in California voted against the ballot initiative. Moreover, their report concluded that a voter's party identification, ideology, religious affiliation and age had a much bigger impact on the decision to vote for or against Proposition 8. The academics explained much of the difference among racial and ethnic groups to varying levels of religiosity. It has little to do with race and more to do with how often a voter worships.
A survey conducted by Asian Pacific American Legal Center, API Equality-LA, API Equality, and California Faith for Equality released Jan. 22, 2009 also showed voting trends on Prop 8 that included this:
BY AGE - Overall, Asian Americans between the ages of 18 to 34 voted significantly against Prop 8 (69% to 31%), with some Asian ethnic groups showing more than three-fourths of its young voters opposing Prop 8. As with other racial and ethnic groups, age is a key factor in influencing how an individual voted on Prop 8 and with age comes support for Prop 8. Across the board, in every Asian ethnic group, older voters (65+) were significantly more likely to support Prop 8, with approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of older Asian Americans voting Yes. "Asian Americans mirror the statewide patterns that have emerged in other surveys, where young people voted overwhelmingly against Prop 8 but their parents or grandparents voted strongly in support of Prop 8. We have experienced this in our grassroots education and organizing and we are heartened by it as a sign that change and progress is possible in our communities, moving between generations," said Marshall Wong, Co-Chair of API Equality-LA.
Choi is 33. As a leader and role model, he has the power to move that older generation. Challenge him on 13th CD issues such as Barlow Hospital, which Jimmie Woods-Gray said Choi knew nothing about. But the suggestion that Choi might be homophobic because his campaign accepted a check from Prop 8 supporters - a donation that was subsequently contributed to an LGBT organization - doesn't seem to jibe with reality. And Stonewall members may have felt the same way since only one person brought it up and that was to denounce the green paper tiger. What remains unforeseen, however, is whether Asian American voters might feel insulted if the effort to slather Choi in Prop 8 homophobia goes beyond the LGBT community.
The endorsement vote was by secret ballot. 87 ballots were cast, one was blank, with 52 votes needed for the 60 percent margin for endorsement. O'Farrell got 53 votes. He was thrilled, but Choi was also thrilled that he came so close, losing by only one vote.
(6th CD candidate Nury Martinez, center, with supporters Torie Osborn and Steve Zimmer. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
The other important endorsement vote was between Nury Martinez, a member of the LAUSD school board and Cindy Montanez, a former member of the California Assembly for the Special Election Primary on May 21.
There was a hint of acrimony here - but frankly, more between supporters that the candidates. In fact, in a quick moment when their staff and supporters were elsewhere, Martinez happened to pass Montanez, who was standing alone against the side brick wall. Martinez stopped abruptly, turned, and extended her hand - which Montanez took and shook with a big, genuine smile. It was a telling private moment no one noticed, suggesting the prospect of civility along with the Latina fighting spirit they both extoled, if one of them is elected to represent the 6th CD and becomes the only women sitting on the LA City Council. Montanez won handily on the second ballot - 55 to 21, but Martinez said she was also pleased that she received the Stonewall Endorsement Committee's recommendation with 4 votes to 3 abstentions. (There will be more to come on this race later.)
(6th CD candidate Cindy Montanez, center, with supporters David Lyell and Jeff Prang. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
As fun for grassroots Democratic process nerds as the endorsement meetings might be - what so many candidates have learned the hard way is that endorsements don't guarantee a win. Getting people to mail in or go out to vote is what matters in the end.