Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

How to Run for City Council on $4,000

Rich GoodmanIn a small two-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys with brown shag carpeting and a cottage cheese ceiling, a French kid named Alexis sits at a desk with headphones, staring at his MacBook through black-frame glasses. As Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik plays from a boom box, Alexis' computer dials phone numbers until someone picks up. He speaks with a noticeable but not thick French accent, reading from a script:

"Hello, Maria? My name is Alex, I'm a volunteer calling about the important city council election on March 8th. Have you already voted?"

A pause, and some back-and-forth about mail-in-ballots.

"I would like to know who you are going to vote for for city council. Oh. Well, I'm supporting Rich Goodman. He's a good man for city council. He just received the L.A. Times endorsement two days ago. He's a Democrat with strong ethics and moral integrity, believes that our taxes should go to our neighborhoods and to improve our streets and sidewalks."

This scene, in this little apartment, this is how you run for Los Angeles City Council on less than $4,000. You get friends (including your dad) and perhaps a few random strangers to volunteer, making phone calls and knocking on doors.

Rich Goodman is running for Council District 6 against incumbent Tony Cardenas, James "Jamie" Cordaro (as his signs say) and David Barron. Goodman is all of 27 years old, has only lived in the district since August, and has raised only a few thousand dollars. His campaign hasn't purchased a single yard sign. He doesn't even have a coffee maker. Or a car that runs. (He says it's in his parking garage but the battery is dead because he never uses it).

Cardenas, on the other hand, has raised more than $165,000. He's spent it on a political consulting firm (about $23,000), a polling firm ($20,000), a direct mail campaign ($19,800), a campaign staff, and various other expenses. All this in addition to what any city councilman can do -- use his or her massive budget to provide constituent services to the community. However, Goodman claims to see his relative poverty as a strength.

"I'm not going into city hall beholden to anyone," he says.

After Goodman graduated from UCLA, he started Weddingism, a website that sells high-end wedding accessories like shoes and jewelry. He sold the company last year, and decided to take a stab at politics. His city council candidacy seemed like little more than a lark -- until out of nowhere, the L.A. Times endorsed him:

Rich Goodman is 27 and would be, by a big stretch, the youngest member of the council he seeks to join. He does not have much in the way of practical experience, but he is earnest and well versed in some of the larger issues before the city. He grasps the nuances of public safety funding, for instance, and he has a background in economics that would serve him well. Goodman is a long shot, but those with long memories will recall that a young Zev Yaroslavsky made his way into L.A. politics this way a few decades back. The Los Angeles Times endorses Goodman in the 6th District.

This is not to say that Goodman is anything other than the longest of shots. The Daily News is considered to be more influential than the L.A. Times in the San Fernando Valley, and they've endorsed Cardenas. Besides, residents of CD 6 are quite possibly the most apathetic in the entire city. During the last city council election in 2007, Cardenas was re-elected with only 4,803 votes. His three opponents managed only 2,445.

Even-numbered city council district elections are never held the same year mayoral elections are, so turnout is significantly smaller. In 2007, CD 6's turnout was the smallest in the city, including districts where the incumbent was running unopposed.

The silver lining, of course, is that the slightest of surges in voter turnout could produce an upset. If Cardenas' opponents can keep him from getting 50 percent of the votes, they'll force him into a runoff, garnering lots of attention and free media for whoever comes in second.

After phone banking for an hour or so, Goodman asks me for a ride to a candidate's forum at John H. Francis Polytechnic School. The parking lot is packed. Goodman starts to get excited. And perhaps a bit nervous.

"How many people do you think are here?" he asks. "A hundred?"

But as we walk into the auditorium, his heart sinks. There are only about 18 people in a room that probably seats more than 200. He greets David Barron, who congratulates him on the Times endorsement.

"Is Cardenas coming?" Goodman asks.

"I would say... no," says Barron.

The forum feels depressing and inconsequential. The candidates' speeches bounce off the walls of the cavernous theater. Jamie Cordaro lays into Cardenas for not showing up and for mismanaging the district, but other than that, it's a tepid affair. The end of the forum features time for some questions from the audience members, who range from concerned citizens to geriatric wing nuts.

"What a bunch of psychos," says Goodman, as we're in my car driving away. "I shouldn't have even come here. I should've just stayed home and made calls."


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