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Will Gascón advance? Will Measure HLA pass? A quick look at the top L.A. County races

SANTA MONICA, CA - OCTOBER 23, 2023 - Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon attends a news conference Monday to address the allegation that hotels are using staffing agencies to hire homeless migrants as replacement workers for strikers at Le Meridien Defina hotel in Santa Monica on October 23, 2023. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, shown in October, is up for reelection against 11 challengers. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
5:43 p.m. March 6, 2024: An earlier version of this article said that Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia was elected in 2022 with substantial help from volunteers belonging to the Democratic Socialists of America. While a DSA voter guide recommended a vote for Mejia, the organization’s members did not mount an organized campaign for him.

A referendum on a more rehabilitative, less punitive approach to criminal justice got its latest test Tuesday in Los Angeles County, as progressive Dist. Atty. George Gascón faced a large field of opponents promising either more moderate reforms or a return to tougher law enforcement.

The 11 challengers to be district attorney created the hottest race in the county, with the large field and substantial discontent with Gascón all but certain to prevent anyone from winning a majority, setting up an expected November runoff between the top two finishers.

Tuesday’s election also put nearly half the seats on the City Council and the majority of the five-member county Board of Supervisors before voters, along with the question of who will replace two venerable L.A. school board members and a ballot measure intended to substantially rework traffic patterns in the city of Los Angeles.

In early returns Tuesday evening, Gascón was leading a tightly bunched group of opponents in the district attorney race.

He was followed by Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor, who raised the most money in the primary; Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, a Gascón critic popular with victims rights advocates; and Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta, who was endorsed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the largest law enforcement union in L.A. County.

Also on the ballot is citizen-sponsored Measure HLA, which would take road projects that have languished for years on drawing boards and push them toward reality — adding more than 600 miles of bicycle lanes and 200 miles of bus lanes around the city.

Among the many projects the measure identifies are protected bike lanes on Sunset and Venice boulevards and a bus lane connecting Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights to 6th Street downtown, then to Wilshire Boulevard west of the 110 Freeway.

Approval of HLA would effectively fast-forward the city’s ambitious Mobility Plan, which calls for special improvements every time an eighth of a mile, or more, of street is paved. Though some of the plans would constrict car traffic, they also identify about 80 miles of road where efficient vehicle travel would be the priority.

HLA’s backers say it will promote multiple forms of transportation and make streets safer by slowing cars down. Opponents contend the measure will create unintended danger by slowing emergency vehicles. The cost of implementing the proposal also has created a sharp split: The city’s top budget official says it will have a price tag of at least $3.1 billion, while proponents say it will cost much less.

Initial results Tuesday showed HLA ahead by a wide margin.

Perhaps the most closely watched of the seven Los Angeles City Council contests has been the reelection bid of Nithya Raman, a progressive whose election four years ago helped usher in an increased interest at City Hall in renters' rights and crime-reduction tactics not solely reliant on police.

Raman has had to focus on more than policy during her first term. She fought off a recall attempt that never reached the ballot and now faces a bid for a second term in a district whose boundaries were substantially redrawn in a way that cut the number of generally liberal-leaning renters. Cut from the 4th District: tenant-heavy areas such as Park La Brea. Added: single-family home havens such as Encino, and parts of Studio City and Reseda.

In the most expensive council race this year, Deputy City Atty. Ethan Weaver has positioned himself as a moderate alternative.

Raman has drawn a clear distinction with Weaver and some of her current colleagues by opposing a city law that prohibits homeless encampments near schools. The councilwoman also voted against a package of pay raises for the LAPD. Weaver supports the police raises and the law limiting the location of homeless encampments.

Read more: Primary election results: Los Angeles County

The councilwoman, who lives in Silver Lake, had the distinction in 2020 of becoming the first member of the Democratic Socialists of America to oust an incumbent at City Hall. The leftward tilt at City Hall proved much more than an anomaly two years later, when two other candidates won with substantial help from DSA volunteers — Councilmembers Hugo Soto-Martínez and Eunisses Hernandez.

Weaver has sought to portray the DSA as too “radical” for the district. Raman has countered that she is a “pragmatic progressive.” Her vote for Mayor Karen Bass’ budget, which called for hiring 1,000 police officers, did not sit well with some on the left.

Raman held an extremely narrow lead over Weaver in the first round of results Tuesday, with software engineer Levon “Lev” Baronian a distant third.

Another high-profile city contest puts Councilmember Kevin de León in front of voters for the first time since a secret recording caught him, two other council members and a labor leader engaged in an inflammatory and racist discussion of how to carve up political districts in L.A.

The October 2021 recording, which was leaked a year later, spurred calls for De León to resign, but he has held his post representing the 14th District, which includes northeast Los Angeles. Among the seven candidates competing to replace him are two former members of the state Assembly, a DSA-backed activist, a high school science teacher, a real estate attorney, a geriatric social worker and a nonprofit consultant.

De León had the early lead over the large field in the first round of returns, followed by state Assemblymember Miguel Santiago and DSA-supported tenant rights attorney Ysabel Jurado.

In Los Angeles County, three incumbents are running for reelection to the Board of Supervisors.

After serving in the state Senate and one term on the county board, Holly Mitchell is the establishment candidate in the 2nd District. The incumbent touts endorsements from Bass, labor unions and the Sierra Club.

The county’s 4th District is home to Supervisor Janice Hahn, part of a political dynasty headlined for four decades by her father, the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and also including her brother, a former city controller, city attorney and mayor.

Hahn has drawn a well-known and controversial opponent, former Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who bridled at oversight of his department and lost his reelection bid in a landslide in 2022. The two are joined on the ballot by John Cruikshank, who has served seven years as a council member and mayor in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Incumbents Mitchell and Hahn were comfortably ahead in early returns, while Villanueva trailed badly in his attempt to return to elective office.

The 5th supervisorial district, which reaches to the north end of the county, has been represented since 2016 by Kathryn Barger. Although she is a Republican, Barger has won the backing of labor unions, including SEIU Local 721 and the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents rank-and-file members of the Sheriff’s Department. She also has the endorsement of a Planned Parenthood advocacy group.

The challenger with the highest political profile is Chris Holden, a Democrat who represents Pasadena in the state Assembly and who is forced by term limits to leave that post. Holden also has substantial labor backing, including from a pair of SEIU locals.

Barger held a solid lead in the first round of returns.

The Los Angeles Board of Education will be reshaped by Tuesday’s election as two significant political and education figures — Jackie Goldberg and George McKenna — will retire at the end of the year. In all, 18 candidates are vying to hold one of four seats on the ballot. Most races are likely to be settled with a runoff in November.

The outcome will determine whether the board majority will be more or less supportive of charters, which are privately managed, mostly nonunion public schools. The district faces financial uncertainty due to declining enrollment and the expiration of pandemic-relief aid, as it attempts to boost student achievement.

One of the more controversial figures on the ballot is Kahllid Al-Alim; it was disclosed in February that he had reposted or “liked” social media posts with content that was antisemitic, pro-gun or pornographic. Despite those revelations, Al-Alim pushed into a narrow early lead in the contest for the seat representing District 1 in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District.

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.