District 14 City Council candidates discuss homelessness, BRT at Feb. 3 forum

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District 14 City Council candidates John Jimenez, Mónica García, Cyndi Otteson, Kevin DeLeón, Raquel Zamora (right to left). Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

Eagle Rock community members gathered at a forum hosted by The Eagle Rock Association Feb. 3 to hear from the five candidates running in the March 3 election for the Los Angeles City Council District (CD) 14. The district encompasses Eagle Rock, Highland Park, El Sereno, Boyle Heights, Glassell Park, Downtown and Monterey Hills. Current councilman Jose Huizar, who has represented the district since 2005, has reached his term limit. In recent years, Huizar has been involved in several scandals, including an FBI investigation and sexual harassment lawsuits.

The five candidates who qualified for the March 3 ballot — Kevin de León, Cyndi Otteson, Raquel Zamora, John Jimenez and Mónica García — each spoke about their platforms on key issues such as transportation, environmental policy, homelessness and economic development.

De León, the former president pro tempore of the California state Senate, was recently endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. In 2018, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Dianne Feinstein. According to de León, he wants to improve air quality and carbon emissions in addition to working toward reducing the district’s homeless population. He has raised the most money of all CD 14 candidates, coming in at $640,000, with donations from developers, political action committees and real estate firms.

García, member and former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley. García has raised the second largest amount of money, fundraising around $200,000. Many of her individual donations have come from members of the LAUSD community.

Otteson, former vice president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, has led media and marketing strategy for Fortune 500 brands, according to her website. She is board president of Miry’s List, a nonprofit focused on resettling refugee families in LA. Otteson said her campaign is only taking donations from small businesses and individuals.

Zamora, a Boyle Heights native, described herself as a mother, teacher, social worker and lifelong area constituent. Zamora said she wants to tackle the issue of homelessness through a social work lens. She shares a United Teachers of LA endorsement with Otteson.

Jimenez was born and raised in Boyle Heights and is a co-founder of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. The 78-year-old Jimenez said he has been helping the community since his teenage years. According to a profile in the Boulevard Sentinel, he has worked in education nonprofits in Eastside communities.

Eagle Rock residents Devon Turner and Juan Ashton said they came to the forum looking to get to know the candidates. Turner said she was interested in candidates who were focused on larger issues within the Eagle Rock community.

“I was really not interested in supporting a candidate who is just interested in ‘business as usual,’” Turner said. “I wanted to have someone who is actually interested in systemic change and actually addressing society.”

Audience members at the District 14 City Council election meeting. Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

During the forum, all candidates agreed that the homelessness crisis within the district needs a new approach.

“CD 14 has the largest number of homeless individuals, not in the city of Los Angeles, but in the United States of America,” de León said. “We have Skid Row. We are the national epicenter when it comes to homelessness.”

García said solutions are different depending on the neighborhood.

“We want to get rid of the homeless everywhere, but it might look different in Downtown, where 7,500 people are unsheltered today, and in Eagle Rock,” García said.

Zamora explained her strategy of approaching the homeless crisis through a social work lens.

“As a social worker, you have to build trust, you build rapport, and that’s very important,” Zamora said. “Once you’ve established that trust and that rapport, then you listen.”

Otteson said her first action as councilwoman would be to appoint a “homelessness tsar,” a designated official who would solely focus on the issue of homelessness within CD 14.

Similarly, Jimenez said he would seek input throughout each community in the district.

Regarding the debate surrounding the potential Colorado Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line — a Metro effort to implement BRT lines between the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys — all candidates expressed interest in improving the district’s public transit.

“I am for the BRT on Colorado Boulevard if it fulfills its promise to connect us to the rest of the city and it makes ER a more beautiful and equitable place,” Otteson said.

Zamora created a pledge for all candidates asking if they would serve their full four-year term, due to concern that de Leon was considering a run for LA mayor to replace Eric Garcetti. She said all the candidates signed the pledge except de León.

At the forum, De León said he would serve the full term if elected.

“Yes, I will serve the full term and if you’ll let me,” de León said. “I’ll serve another term, and I would be honored and privileged to represent each and every one of you.”

For the March 3 election, ballot casting begins as early as Feb. 22. This election, LA County is using Vote Centers instead of polling places, where voters can use new electronic ballot-marking devices meant to improve accessibility.