Feature / February 12, 2024

LA’s Corporate Class Wants to Reverse Progressive Gains

The LA left’s newfound electoral muscle has transformed the city into one of the most renter-friendly in the country. Business and real estate interests are fighting back.

Mike Bonin and Peter Dreier
Illustration by Ryan Inzana.

On a warm night this past November, members of Los Angeles’s political and business elite gathered in the backyard of a $12 million Beverly Hills estate to launch a campaign targeting a group of progressive officials who have upended local politics by promoting renter protections, affordable housing, workers’ rights, unarmed crisis response to many public-safety calls, and campaign finance reforms.

Headlined by Rick Caruso—a billionaire real estate developer and Republican-turned-Democrat who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2022—the event was billed as the start of an effort to “reverse the tide of DSA extremists,” referring to the Democratic Socialists of America. The organizers announced the formation of a new PAC, Thrive LA, and the hiring of several veteran Democratic political consultants to guide a seven-figure campaign to unseat City Councilmember Nithya Raman, one of several progressives who recently toppled moderate incumbents. Raman, who is up for reelection in March, is backed by most of LA’s unions and community organizing groups and was endorsed in January by the Los Angeles Times, which called her “smart and courageous.”

The business and political elite view the campaign as the first battle in a war to reverse the growing influence of progressives in LA. At the Beverly Hills fundraiser, the political consultant Jimmy Blackman told the crowd that unseating Raman would set the stage to go after other progressives in 2026.

The invitation-only event, at the home of the wealthy developer Fred Afari, featured a mix of Republicans and corporate Democrats who claim to be the reasonable and pragmatic voice of Los Angeles—in contrast to the “ideological and partisan” progressives. Attendees, who were instructed to cover their cell phone cameras and not speak about the event publicly, included developers, business leaders, lobbyists, political consultants, current City Councilmember Traci Park and former councilmember Joe Buscaino (both landlord favorites), and a large contingent from the United Firefighters union, according to sources who attended the meeting and wish to remain anonymous. They were there to take back what they felt was rightfully theirs—LA government—and bend it back to doing their bidding.

Thrive LA was started by real estate and business interests. Its board president, Sam Yebri, ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2022 with backing from the business establishment, landlords, and the police and firefighters’ unions. Its chief financial officer is Brad Conroy, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Beverly Hills. Conroy is also one of the PAC’s two largest donors, along with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Its board secretary is Noel Hyun Minor, a real estate executive. The group’s aim is to eradicate the LA left’s newfound electoral muscle, and its first target is Raman, whose upset election in 2020 was a sign of a power shift in the city’s politics.

A Harvard- and MIT-educated urban planner and political newcomer who founded a nonprofit to serve homeless people, Raman took on David Ryu, a first-term councilmember who had the backing of the political establishment, organized labor, and the business community. Eschewing traditional campaign tactics—she hired no political consultants, conducted no polls, and did almost no direct mail—Raman assembled an army of volunteers, created a network of first-time donors, and appealed to many people who had never voted before. She won 53 percent of the vote—with a higher total than any other City Council candidate in LA’s history. Former councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, speaking to the Los Angeles Times, described her victory as “a political earthquake.”

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Raman has already been in the crosshairs of several efforts to undermine her political ascendancy. In June 2021, six months after she took office, conservative homeowner groups and landlords backed a recall effort but failed to gather enough signatures. Later that year, Raman’s City Council colleagues sought to weaken her reelection chances by redrawing her district, swapping 40 percent of her constituents for voters in more conservative and home-owning areas and thereby eliminating many of her strong supporters among renters.

That effort was led by then–City Council president Nury Martinez, who in 2022 resigned in disgrace after it came to light that she had made a series of racist comments during a secretly recorded conversation with two other councilmembers and a prominent labor leader. The leaked audio came from a meeting to discuss the redrawing of council districts. Martinez and the other participants can be heard plotting to diminish the electoral influence of African Americans, renters, and progressives. (Disclosure: The young child of one of the authors of this article, Mike Bonin, was the subject of racist and disparaging remarks in the recorded conversation.) Defeating Raman was a key feature of their strategy.

One participant, Councilmember Gil Cedillo, a favorite of developers, said of Raman: “She’s not our ally.” Another councilmember, Kevin de León, proposed putting her district “in the blender and chop up left and right.”

Political insiders considered Raman’s election a fluke—until lightning struck again in 2022, when Hugo Soto-Martínez, an organizer with the hospitality workers’ union, and Eunisses Hernandez, a community organizer and vocal critic of the Los Angeles Police Department, who both ran similar campaigns, unseated establishment incumbents. At the same time, the progressive activist Kenneth Mejia ran an unconventional, youth-oriented campaign for city controller, beating a well-known liberal who had held various offices for decades. Mejia earned more votes than any other candidate for any office in LA history. Like Raman’s, all of these campaigns relied heavily on the votes of renters—who make up a majority of the city’s residents but have rarely held political power. DSA members volunteered on each of them.

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On that same Election Day in 2022, LA voters chose Karen Bass, a former community organizer and longtime US representative, as the city’s first woman and second African American mayor, over Caruso, who had outspent her by more than 10 to one.

Voters also passed a “mansion tax” on all properties selling for over $5 million, which proponents estimated would generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year to build affordable housing, provide vulnerable tenants with rent subsidies, and pay for lawyers to defend renters against unfair evictions; if it raised the projected revenue, it would become the largest municipal housing fund in the country. (Disclosure: The other author of this article, Peter Dreier, was one of the architects of this measure.) The proposition, called Measure ULA, was backed by an unprecedented grassroots coalition of unions, tenants’ groups, and nonprofit community groups and garnered 58 percent of the vote, thanks in part to substantial support from renters. The campaign took the city’s real estate and business leaders by surprise. When their last-minute opposition efforts—in which they outspent the pro-ULA forces by two to one—failed, they filed suit to repeal the new law. But that failed too.

Nithya Raman won a Los Angeles City Council seat a progressive political newcomer.
Insurgent victory: Nithya Raman won a Los Angeles City Council seat a progressive political newcomer. (Richard Vogel / AP)

Raman’s victory shifted the balance of power in City Hall. She, Soto-Martínez, and Hernandez make up the core of a progressive bloc, often joined by Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Katy Yaroslavsky. While they lack a majority on the 15-member Council, they have brought progressive policies from the margins to the center of the debate through savvy organizing and by building relationships with more moderate colleagues.

Within weeks of the 2022 election, the newly emboldened progressive bloc spearheaded the largest expansion of protections for renters in more than 40 years, including “just cause” eviction protections, a debt threshold for nonpayment evictions, and relocation assistance for rent-gouged tenants. It was legislation that Raman had been pushing for over a year, earning her and other progressives the ire of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and the California Apartment Association, both mouthpieces for the corporate landlord lobby.

“Renters are the sleeping giant of Los Angeles politics, and Nithya was the first candidate to really tap into that,” said Soto-Martínez. “Her campaign inspired me to run. Mobilizing renters, workers, and immigrants is how we make lasting, positive change.”

As the chair of the City Council’s housing committee, Raman has worked with Mayor Bass to move thousands of people off the streets by expanding funding for housing, shelters, and mental health services—a sharp contrast with the city’s previous reliance on police sweeps of street encampments and other punitive strategies that criminalize the homeless. Raman has also been a forceful advocate for streamlining housing production and increasing density to address the city’s housing crisis.

Some of Raman’s other initiatives have angered the city’s business establishment. She wrote an ordinance that makes LA the largest city to require all new construction to be carbon-free. As a city representative on the regional air-quality board, she successfully pushed to pass stricter rules against polluters across Southern California. She has been the council’s leading advocate for strengthening the regulation of lobbyists and has proposed publicly financed “democracy vouchers” to bolster the fortunes of grassroots candidates.

Raman, Hernandez, and Soto-Martínez all opposed a salary increase for LAPD officers that could cost the city $1 billion over four years. Los Angeles is projected to be in a $350 million to $450 million deficit for the next fiscal year, which would hamper efforts to provide basic services and fund social programs.

Ethan Weaver (L) and Rick Caruso seek to push Raman out.
Corporate captains: Ethan Weaver (L) and Rick Caruso seek to push Raman out. (Ethan Weaver / Flickr; Amanda Edwards / Getty Images)

This is not the first time Los Angeles’s business and real estate tycoons have tried to engineer a political coup. During its post–World War II boom, the city was run by a handful of businessmen—the Committee of 25—who spoke with one voice, typically through the then-reactionary Los Angeles Times. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the Committee of 25 was LA’s shadow government—a who’s who of the city’s business elite, including real estate developers, aerospace and defense contractors, and the leaders of major banks, department stores, and oil and insurance companies. Most were Republicans. They wanted “law and order,” a business-friendly, anti-union city, and free rein to build sprawling, suburban-style housing developments and downtown high-rise towers. To get what they wanted, they helped elect mayors and city councilmembers and appoint police chiefs and county sheriffs.

Starting in the late 1980s, out-of-state corporations began buying up major businesses—including even the Los Angeles Times—and LA became a city of absentee-owned firms whose managers had little long-term stake in local affairs. As a result, for over a quarter-century LA’s business community has been politically disorganized, with no coherent agenda, which is reflected in the common view that the city’s Chamber of Commerce is a paper tiger.

This vacuum in business leadership has led to elected officials’ reliance on contributions from a wide variety of firms with a direct stake in local policymaking. These include developers seeking zoning approvals and tax breaks and companies that do business with government agencies.

Two other forces have been vying for political influence. One is a loose coalition of local business groups (primarily based in the suburban San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of LA) and predominantly white and affluent homeowner associations.

The other is a progressive coalition led by labor unions allied with a growing network of community organizations and civil rights and environmental groups.

In 1997, a revitalized union movement pushed the City Council to pass a living-wage law covering all firms with city contracts, over the opposition of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan and the Chamber of Commerce.

In 1999, in the nation’s largest union victory in over 50 years, more than 74,000 home healthcare aides won an organizing effort led by the Service Employees International Union. In 2000, a strike by mostly immigrant janitors won widespread public support and led to a resounding contract victory. In 2015, the City Council adopted a citywide minimum wage for all employers. It is now $16.78 an hour, one of the highest in the country.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the City Council enacted a law requiring grocery and drug store chains to pay their workers an additional $5 an hour in “hero pay” as compensation for the health risks they faced. Unions also got the city to require hotels to address the sexual harassment of employees and to mandate that retail stores provide employees with regular work schedules.

Since then, Los Angeles has become ground zero for labor activism around the country, with recent strikes by teachers and other public school employees; writers and actors; Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers; graduate students at UCLA; city employees, including sanitation workers, traffic officers, airport custodians, maintenance workers, and lifeguards; and, since last July, 30,000 hotel workers.

Notably, a number of unions have built close ties to tenants’ rights groups—in part because so many union members are renters whose pay raises are often wiped out by rent increases.

Thrive LA hopes to turn back the clock on these efforts, undoing tenant protections (including Measure ULA), increasing the budget for the police and fire departments, and weakening the minimum wage and other worker protections.

Backlash: A leaked recording of racist remarks from LA city councilmembers prompted demands for resignations. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The groups working to defeat Raman are a veritable rogues’ gallery of the region’s most pernicious political forces. Douglas Emmett Inc., a corporate landlord and one of LA’s largest private property owners, which is currently conducting the biggest mass eviction in decades (tenants from 577 units in one apartment complex), contributed $400,000 to unseat Raman. Kilroy Reality, another corporate landlord firm, donated $100,000. (Kilroy CEO John Kilroy helped bankroll the successful 2022 recall of San Francisco’s progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin and is currently funding a statewide ballot measure to repeal Measure ULA.) The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which has repeatedly defended the LAPD’s egregious use of force against the city’s Black residents, has donated $273,000 so far, while the firefighters’ union, which has opposed vaccine mandates and objected to gender diversity efforts in the department, has already spent over $300,000. In late January, one anti-Raman PAC launched lurid ads—paid for by Douglas Emmett Inc. and the police union—claiming that Raman’s policies have led to an increase in crime, ruined neighborhoods, and imperiled schoolchildren. The message is regularly amplified by the Valley Current, a new conservative online paper that has given a platform to NIMBY opponents of housing for the poor, lambasted the DSA, and attacked Raman for embracing affordable housing developments and opposing police sweeps of homeless people.

These forces are rallying behind Raman’s opponent, Ethan Weaver, a prosecutor who works for the landlord-friendly City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, who was elected in 2022. Weaver has called for expanding the LAPD, falsely claiming that crime and homelessness are up in Raman’s district.

But the dirtiest aspect of Weaver’s campaign came after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Raman quickly posted on social media condemning “the horrific violence by Hamas” and later said that “I cannot imagine the terror” felt by LA’s Jewish and Israeli American communities. After some DSA members declared their “solidarity with Palestine,” Raman said the DSA statement “failed to reckon with the horrors committed by Hamas and was unacceptably devoid of empathy for communities in Israel and at home who are living in fear and mourning.”

Regardless, Weaver—using the familiar tactic of guilt by association in his attempt to appeal to Jewish voters—attacked Raman because the DSA had endorsed her in 2020 and was door-knocking and phone-banking for her reelection. Through social media and press releases, Weaver called on her to reject the DSA’s endorsement.

Raman, who was born in India (she emigrated to the US with her family when she was 6), has a dark complexion; political observers have noted that some voters might inaccurately think she is an Arab, which Weaver’s accusations—wittingly or unwittingly—seemed to encourage.

Camille Zapata, a board member with the advocacy group California Women’s List, claimed Weaver was employing “hateful tactics” that could stoke “violence and harassment.” Following Weaver’s insinuations, Raman received hate mail accusing her of being anti-Israel, pro-Hamas, and even antisemitic, despite her strong support from many Jewish leaders.

In an overwhelmingly blue city, Democratic opponents of LA’s progressive movement have gone to great lengths to claim that they are not conservative, even as they promote conservative policies and candidates. They’ve formed new Democratic Party clubs to give their favored candidates a stamp of approval to confuse liberal but less-informed voters. They tried to secure the Los Angeles County Democratic Party endorsement for Weaver, which Raman ended up winning by a large margin. Thrive LA’s website has featured right-wing articles railing against progressive policies on homelessness, public safety, and Covid-related school closures, though an article attacking public employee unions was quickly removed to avoid offending the police and firefighters’ unions.

To combat Weaver’s challenge, Raman has built alliances with organized labor, winning endorsements from unions representing hotel workers, service workers, healthcare workers, carpenters, teamsters, and others. She is the overwhelming choice of environmentalists, Bernie Sanders supporters, and groups doing progressive electoral work, such as the Working Families Party and Ground Game LA. She has the support of a wide range of elected officials, including the popular mayor. She has also worked hard to court voters in her newly redrawn district by focusing on constituent services.

In the upcoming election, progressives hope not only to return Raman to office but to defeat Councilmember de León—once a rising progressive star, who refused to resign after he was recorded making racist comments on the infamous tape—and to unseat conservative Councilmember John Lee, who is facing an ethics investigation. Another goal is to win a second term for the progressive LA County District Attorney George Gascón, a former police officer who was elected in 2020 on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system, including reining in rogue cops, which angered the police union.

American cities have witnessed a recent wave of progressive mayors, city councilmembers, and district attorneys. If LA’s coalition of business leaders, real estate developers, police, and firefighters is able to upend that movement in the nation’s second-largest city, their counterparts in other cities will certainly try to learn from and replicate their effort.

“This year’s election is incredibly important,” said Bill Przylucki, a veteran organizer with Ground Game LA. “Progressives have shown they can take on the establishment and get elected. They are showing every day that they can govern. But to truly make change, we need to consolidate power—and that means showing that progressives can run on their records and get reelected.”

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Mike Bonin

Mike Bonin hosts the What’s Next, Los Angeles? podcast and teaches at Occidental College and Loyola Marymount University. He served on the LA City Council from 2013 to 2022.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College and is author of several books including Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America, published in April, 2022.

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