An Analysis of the Raucous CD1 Candidate Debate

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by David R. Bloom

   To describe Monday night's debate between 1st Council District incumbent Gil Cedillo and his runoff election rival Joe Bray-Ali as simply a discussion on the issue of housing, as it was designed, would be curt. It is more appropriate to elaborate on the brewing fist fights in the crowd, for example, and how they play into the story.

   The candidate debate at the Central American Resource Center near MacArthur Park was the second in the run-up for the 1st District city council race. The first debate occurred on February 16 with Bray-Ali and Cedillo, in addition to Highland Park business owner Jesse Rosas and activist Giovanni Hernandez. It was a prelude to the March 7 municipal election, which resulted in Bray-Ali able to force a runoff election on May 17 by just 130 votes.

   The debate began with an introduction in Spanish with English translation. The ground rules for etiquette were announced, for what they were worth, followed by the introduction of Bray-Ali who emerged wearing a flat front suit with light green tie. Cedillo was announced next, and after a dramatic pause he strolled in como guayabera. The topic was supposed to focus on housing issue-related questions submitted by the panel and from members of the crowd. However, the situation quickly devolved to a series of rallying cries by the candidates followed by shouting matches between strategically positioned supporters of the two camps. The debate was moderated by Pilar Marrero of the Spanish language newspaper La Opinion.

   “Hey, that man is wearing a button. Tell him to take his button off,” said an elderly female Bray-Ali supporter in the crowd. The “button” was actually a round Cedillo sticker that was being passed out to his supporters just prior to the start. By the time the debate was underway, several people openly wore buttons and t-shits in support of their candidate in spite of breaking the rules. One man tauntingly waved a Cedillo yard sign throughout the event, which resulted in a Bray-Ali supporter retrieving a yard sign from his vehicle to do the same. No signs at all were supposed to be held, but a Bray-Ali supporter standing next to Joe's brother Adam Bray-Ali held up a sign that read, “Do your job,” for at least half the event's duration.

   Cedillo gave the first opening remarks. "I have a long history in this very community," he said. "I have protested with you and I have marched with you." Bray-Ali went next. "I represent the mix that is Los Angeles in the 21st Century," he said. In reference to his first attempts to bring street safety up to his Council office, he added, “When I went to the councilman’s office, I never got farther than the field deputy. They never answered an email. They never answered a phone call. They never answered when I went to his office in City Hall." At the end of his speech Bray-Ali's supporters started chanting “Joe, Joe, Joe!” in defiance of the ground rules.

   The first actual debate question was on development. "We understand the development of new units is critical," said the moderator. "Can you both talk about how to balance the need for new housing in our neighborhoods while preserving the character of our community?" Bray-Ali responded first. He stood up, thanked the moderator, looked at Cedillo who was jotting down notes at the same time, and said, “Some of us are still studying,” to the amusement of his side. Bray-Ali went on to note that the State of California just modified laws to make it easier to get permits for “grandma units”.

   Bray-Ali then went on to address the need for affordable housing, noting that over 1,300 people were evicted last year alone in Los Angeles in situations where the property owner used the Ellis Act. He also suggested that the public went around the City Council Housing Committee, which Cedillo chairs, for passage of Proposition HHH, calling the committee dysfunctional. "We need public money for public housing," he said, adding a need to remove red tape for property owners, and “helping folks get those equity lines they need to purchase their apartment buildings as a collective, as a cooperative using public funds and private funds."

   Cedillo spoke next. “Sharon Lowe, please stand up,” Cedillo said. “Go Sharon!” yelled Maggie Darrett-Quiroz, a Glassell Park activist and ardent Cedillo supporter. This resulted in someone from the Bray-Ali camp telling her to "shut up." “Over two thirds of the housing we have built in this district has been affordable,” Cedillo said, then went on to list three projects in the area immediate to the debate location. “Making sure we are building housing where it is appropriate, in transit areas. That’s what we have been doing here, while my opponent was a member of the Republican Party.” That statement was followed by boos so loud that Cedillo’s continued remarks could not be heard. After his speech, supporters of the incumbent chanted “Cedillo, Cedillo, Cedillo.”

   The next question was one that was submitted by a member of the audience. “How do you plan not only to promote affordable housing, but actually to see it through?" At this point the moderator paused as Maggie Quiroz told Joe Bray Ali’s brother, Adam Bray-Ali. “Don’t touch me. I am not the kind of woman you want to go touching.” Then the moderator continued, “Mr. Cedillo, how do you plan to make sure these projects are affordable?” Cedillo responded, "A tiered system is needed working with the developers and considering the size of the project and criteria that the Federal Government has established." Cedillo also cited the future use of City parking lots and empty lots to slate for affordable development, which he emphasized avoids displacement.

   “Who is this housing really for?” countered Bray-Ali. He went on to mention that he rode his bike to the event and passed at least a dozen market-rate apartments and condominium projects in the district. "I have been a small business owner for eight years, and my opponent has missed vote after vote after vote on the housing crisis," at which point Ms. Quiroz yelled “You used to work for a developer!” Bray-Ali went on. "There is a reason why another member of the Housing Committee, who has sat side by side with this gentleman for the past four years, decided that he had enough," without mentioning the person. Bray-Ali went on to take credit for housing proposals such as eviction protection, which he claimed had sat idle at City Hall, until “this young man standing before you with a tie who has challenged the political machine, and has stricken fear into elected representatives. I know the truth hurts, but the reality is that I am here tonight because of failed leadership in City Hall, because of broken promises, and because I’d like to do nothing better than to protect the tenants of this city."

   The moderator switched topics to gentrification and displacement. "What are the three priorities that you will follow up on in your first term," she asked. Bray-Ali answered first. "Gentrification as a term is a conversation-stopper," he said. "The root is economic displacement, which the incumbent council member said was an ‘urban myth,’ adding, "We need divestment from the large corporate banks."

   Cedillo responded, "Mr. Bray-Ali would know about displacement because he wrote in the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2010, claiming that he wanted to pinpoint single family residences and tear them down, and as he said there was going to be 'money, money, money.' And speaking of broken promises, look in the Los Angeles Times today, it’s online now and will be in the paper tomorrow. It's like I said you can’t trust this man." Bray-Ali supporters in the audience began shouting at Cedillo to stay on topic. ”This man is the bicycle advocate, but the first thing he does is sell out 'Fig4All,'" Cedillo said. At this point things started to get really heated in the crowd.

   On homelessness, Cedillo said, “We have to consider no-fault evictions. We have to build for the chronically homeless with urgency,” adding the need to convert lots owned by the City, LAUSD and Metro, for example. Bray-Ali countered with mention of an apartment building in Lincoln Heights where the tenants were offered buyouts, and asked the incumbent where he was on the two occasions when tenants and their supporters at the Marmion Royal apartment building in Highland Park marched to his field office. "The only people getting vouchers are the homeless and the chronically homeless, Bray-Ali said. "How can we open the vouchers to more people?" Cedillo responded saying he has been active in the decriminalization of the homeless. "Would you trust a person who has been an advocate, or a person who was a developer, a flipper, who told the Downtown Business Journal that there was money to make? He was at the Pacific Dining Car this morning cutting deals. The person who will tell you the truth or the person you know will lie?"

   When Cedillo was done talking and his supporters quieted, Bray-Ali asked, "How do you get there from housing?" Referring to his work in development, Bray-Ali said, "Applying for a permit to remove a tree in Pasadena is one of the things I did. I've gone and gotten construction loans. I've helped to close some deals, as an assistant."

   At this point things got really heated between Maggie Quiroz and the Bray-Ali supporters standing around her, not the least of whom was Adam Bray-Ali. Joe Bray-Ali spoke up. “Please, if you are considering voting for me, calm down." The moderator warned the audience that if things continued in this way they were going to stop the debate.

   When things calmed down some, Cedillo said, "People are being harassed because they are undocumented. Who has the experience working for the undocumented?” Bray-Ali countered with, "I look forward to working with several city leaders. Not in 1995, but in 2017 and into the future,” after which time a Cedillo supporter walked behind the candidate table waving a Cedillo sign. Cedillo looked back at him.

   During the next question and answer on the environment, Cedillo chastised Bray-Ali for allegedly telling a group of youth in Chinatown during his campaign that they shouldn’t have to go to 'Nighting-Jail' (Nightingale Middle School). Then he quickly segued by adding, “But let me tell you about what we are going to do in MacArthur Park."

   Responding to the 'Nighting-Jail' allegation, Bray-Ali said, "I hope you wrote all that, that was impressive. The only thing this council member has been good at is cashing $700 checks from developers outside of this city. We don’t need more development in this city, what we need is extremely low and low-income housing." He added that he has the endorsement of the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters. The Environment is something I take seriously. Chevron money is what the incumbent takes seriously." He went on to describe Dart the Styrofoam cup-making company as endorsing his opponent.

   "Speaking of Chevron," Cedillo countered, This candidate was quick to embrace an endorsement by Mitch O'Farrell, who was also endorsed by Chevron," adding that his office has participated in the acquisition of 150 acres of open land space. Bray-Ali responded by stating that his father donated money to his Cedillo's campaign in 2013 and walked across his district for him. Bray-Ali looked at Cedillo and asked where the line is drawn with being an outsider. “Is it in Bakersfield? Is it in North India?” After which time a man in the crowd shouted, "Go back to India!” Bray-Ali replied, "I was born here. I am a child of Los Angeles."

   Cedillo stood up and again and responded with, "My father was not a political consultant extraordinaire who advised the Latino Caucus for decades. My father was a mechanic at American Can Company. He was a Teamster. He was a shop steward at Starkist Tuna. And he taught me one thing: your word is your bond," following with, "You want to stop gentrification, don’t vote for a 'gentrifier.'”

   Throughout the debate, a particularly boisterous Bray-Ali supporter kept shouting to Cedillo while he spoke, asking him "Where's Geoff Palmer?" Geoff Palmer is the developer who built the Mediterranean-inspired Downtown LA housing developments like The Orsini, The Medici, and the Da Vinci, which burned down December 7, 2014, and was quickly rebuilt. Palmer has aggressively fought to exclude affordable housing requirements in his developments and his company "accidentally" razed the last Victorian home standing in Bunker Hill during one of his projects.

   After the event, attendees of the debate shared a picture of Cedillo's notes that he left on the table. They allege that Cedillo was given the debate questions in advance. However, a more careful look at the notes reveal that they were simply talking points on how to respond to anticipated questions. At least half of the debate questions submitted were from people in the audience, making his advance knowledge of them impossible. Outside the event venue, just after the conclusion, Adam Bray-Ali was asked why Maggie Quiroz was so mad at him. "I just tapped her on the shoulder to tell her something," he said, "and she started screaming at me. "I'm from Venice," he added. "I can handle gangster that's not a big deal." His brother was behind him loading his bicycle into the back of a truck. "He rode his bike here," Adam Bray-Ali said. "But we told him to get a ride home after Teamsters in the crowd threatened him."

   KXLU DJ and MTV podcast producer Mukta Mohan, who resides in Highland Park, was also there. Asked who she supported, she said, "I was a little bit on the fence when I came to the debate. The issues of gentrification, displacement and the housing crisis are really important to me, so I came for some clarity and hoped that the debate would help me make a decision. Instead, I was left with all of my questions unanswered and felt more confused than before." Asked if the popularity of living in Highland Park and all the changes were overall positive or negative, she said, "I think improving school systems, beautification, safety and economic growth are all wonderful things, but it concerns me that these improvements were made in Highland Park only after an influx of an affluent group of people. I think everyone deserves a good education, green space, and to feel safe in their neighborhoods but the way our city is structured now, it feels like those fundamental needs are reserved for those with higher education and a disposable income.

   Earlier on the day of the event, a picture of a signed agreement between Bray-Ali and former candidate Jesse Rosas was distributed among many Cedillo supporters. In it Bray-Ali promised Rosas to keep a field office in Highland Park and to give Rosas a position in his staff. It didn't carry much weight. Rosas made the same deal with Cedillo in 2013 in exchange for his support, but as the story goes, Cedillo never followed through, which is why Rosas will never support him again. Contacted this week, Rosas agreed that Cedillo made a similar promise to him in 2013, but that it was not on paper. "He just said he would take care of me," Rosas says. "But he never did."

   Many people have made comments about the "Go back to India" comment, saying that Cedillo had the opportunity to challenge the degrading comment but did not. From a perspective at the front of the crowd, it appeared that Cedillo did not hear the comment. He deplored the comment on Wednesday in a statement. After the comment by the Cedillo supporter started making waves, Cedillo's team shared a video of Bray-Ali submitted to Gustavo Arellano's "Ask a Mexican" column. In it Bray-Ali asked why his neighbors use their car horns as a door bell.

   The CD1 race has become an issue of race and privilege. This election has revealed the divisiveness and me-first mentality of the newcomer crowd, versus the dogmatic attitude of the establishment and others who were raised in this area and have become xenophobic and reluctant to change. Bray-Ali's comment about Nightingale Middle School can be seen as particularly egregious to low-income, working parents who have no other choice than public schools for their children. Also, you have to have attended the school to use that line. Most people around the area know that. But the fact is, both candidates have said some nasty things in this race. It seems the voters are forced to pick between the lesser of two evils.

   Do the newcomers mix in with others around them? Do their children go to school here? These are the types of questions asked these days on social media. Franklin Football had 23 players last year, and 15 coaches. The school had to remove the bungalow classrooms in use since the 1980s in order to avoid the addition of a charter school to the campus with their eyes on the classrooms. At question is whether the traditions in CD1 will survive.

Photo by John Urquiza

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