From 14 to 1: Candidates in a crowded city election tried many things to stand out

Candidates for the Council District 4 LA City Council seat take part in a forum at Ivanhoe Elementary in Silver Lake.
Candidates for the Council District 4 LA City Council seat take part in a forum at Ivanhoe Elementary in Silver Lake.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

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The race for Los Angeles’ fourth Council District seat came to a surprising end this week when political novice David Ryu beat his well-known rival, City Hall insider Carolyn Ramsay, at the polls Tuesday. 

The road was long and littered with rivals - 13 to be exact. Ryu, the director of a community health organization, said he thought the large field was an advantage.

“We needed at least 10 candidates because it kind of dilutes the pool and makes everybody equal," he said. "It gives a candidate like me - a community candidate - a fighting chance.”

Ryu’s calculus paid off - he squeaked into the runoff by a just a couple of hundred votes in the March Primary.

But some tactics proved less than efficient.

“I designed all of my own flyers," said candidate Tomas O’Grady. He wishes he had instead spent that time walking the precinct. Designing his own materials, he decided, was a “horrid waste of money.”

O'Grady came about 200 votes shy of making it into the runoff.

Candidate Sheila Irani knew she didn’t have enough money to send flyers out in the mail, so she focused instead on campaigning on social media and focusing her outreach efforts in neighborhoods like the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz where most likely voters reside.

She won the important Los Angeles Times endorsement a few weeks before the primary.

Normally a big endorsement like that can make a campaign, but Irani said it didn’t count for much in the end. She came in seventh.

“Unfortunately, it came very late in the game and it wasn’t enough time to lock in a direct mail campaign or hire staff to get out into the field,” she said.

Irani said she had underestimated the critical role money would play in the campaign.

The top two vote-getters in the primary, Ryu and Ramsay, were also the best-funded.

Money matters because it buys better name recognition with unaffected voters, people like Al Gordon - the subject of our #MakeAlCare series.

When we met Al he had never voted in a local election because he said he just didn’t have time to read up on all the candidates and figure out the issues of the election - a common complaint of voters in these non-partisan local races where voters have never heard of most candidates.

Ramsay had a leg up on other candidates in that regard.

As the former Chief of Staff to the district’s current councilman, Tom LaBonge, she'd been working in the community as a representative of the office for 15 years.

But Ryu relied on a strategy experts say pays off: door-knocking.

Ryu claims he knocked on more than 5,000 doors and shook more than 3,000 hands in the primary campaign alone. By that measure, he could have actually shaken the hand of almost every person who voted for him the first time around.

Columbia political scientist Donald Green’s research on voting behavior has shown that personal connections gained through door to door canvassing are among the most persuasive campaigning techniques, beating out robocalls, direct mail and endorsements.

Ryu also ran as an outsider and, in the end, that message may have been the one that got through.