Dumb Days in the First District Council Race

Joe Bray-Ali has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, including a call from City Council President Herb Wesson and other council members to drop out of the First District race. He continues to run, claiming he is the best option for the district. 

There’s a pivotal moment in the 1994 Jim Carrey film Dumb and Dumber that relates to Los Angeles politics in 2017. I can’t believe it either, but it’s true.

In the film, Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas is talking to Mary Swanson, who he pines for, and decides his moment of truth has come. He asks what his chances are with her, and she tells him, “not good.” When he asks if that means one out of a hundred, she gently responds, “I’d say more like one out of a million.”

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There’s an extended pause as Lloyd looks crushed. Then his visage lights and as he gushes, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance. YEAH!”

That brings us to the First District City Council race and long-shot candidate Joe Bray-Ali. 

In the past few weeks, Bray-Ali suffered one of the most mesmerizing falls from grace we’ve ever seen in local politics, as some offensive past online comments have come back to haunt him hard. In the wake of the revelations, his two most important endorsements, from the Los Angeles Times and City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, were rescinded. 

Joe Bray-Al's Big Fall

That wasn’t the end of it. Perhaps worried that opposition researchers working on behalf of his opponent, incumbent Gil Cedillo, would unleash a further attack, Bray-Ali took the unlikely step of dragging his own skeletons out of the closet, tossing them into the middle of the street and then lighting them on fire. He went on Facebook to detail personal transgressions related, among other things, to not paying business taxes and some extramarital affairs.

The Calm Before the Mudslinging

Many people think his campaign is dead. Bray-Ali recognizes this sentiment, but is staying in the race. He’s still walking precincts, meeting with community groups and keeping up a steady social media campaign. In a recent email exchange, he told me, “Chance [sic] of victory for me are slim, but a depressed turnout and the base of support I still have means I have a fighting chance.”

Welcome to the final eight days of election season, Lloyd Christmas. 

Get Out the Vote

Here’s the crazy thing about Bray-Ali’s position: He’s not totally wrong. A ton of people may be disappointed or angry with him — he faced a lot of hard questions from constituents at an Echo Park forum last Thursday — but ultimately the only ones who matter are First District voters, and not many of them come to the polls. In March fewer than 21,000 people in a district with approximately 250,000 residents cast ballots. With no mayoral runoff to drive people on May 16, turnout could tumble. Every vote carries weight.

It seems the only thing Cedillo needs to do to win is not pull a Bray-Ali. Still, he’s never taken the district by storm. In his three previous elections for the seat (two primaries and a 2013 runoff), Cedillo failed to eclipse 52%. Though he had the power of incumbency and a huge war chest in the March primary, he finished just under the majority he needed to win outright. Bray-Ali’s repeated claims that Cedillo is unresponsive to community needs struck a chord, even as he was outspent by more than $400,000 in the first round.

Of course, everything is different now. Last month the website LAist broke the news that, in the fairly recent past, Bray-Ali was posting on the web forum Voat, with comments offensive to, among others, overweight and transgender people. Inexplicably, his brain also told him it was okay to participate in a sub-category delineated by the N-word. His explanation that he wanted to engage with racists and hatemongers so he could track and understand them hasn’t convinced anyone. 

Bray-Ali has since played the flawed human card, though he seems to view the flaws are less serious than others do. He has cast himself as a warts-and-all candidate who maintains he is still be better for the district than the incumbent. He claims that a focus on his personal failings is a distraction from issues imperiling the community.

Cedillo has avoided addressing Bray-Ali as he hits a bunch of local events. He hasn’t done anything grand and he doesn’t need to. Mailers capitalizing on Bray-Ali’s transgressions have just started landing in the district.

Out-Scandal the Scandal

The CD1 race continues a long line of entertaining and sometimes oddball Eastside elections. It’s up there with Jose Huizar’s 2015 stampede over Gloria Molina and his raucous 2011 win against Rudy Martinez.

The Very Strange Huizar-Martinez Race

Yet this contest has plenty that is new. I’ve seen a lot of things in politics, but never watched a guy try to follow up a scandal by out-scandaling the scandal. In Bray-Ali’s Facebook post on April 28, which he also sent to me, he wrote: 

“Here is the dirt on me:

*Flying Pigeon-LA, LLC [his former bike shop] owes the State Board of Equalization for a failure to pay an audit and several quarters of sales taxes. The amount is ~$48,000 the last time I bothered to open the envelope.

*I slept with several other women from 2011 to 2014. Not my wife. For a time I even had a Tinder profile.

*I painted bike symbols (sharrows) in the middle of the night with friends, and on camera with German documentary film maker.

*I have said many profane, rude statements to people I’ve gotten into arguments with online.”

Many people have wondered about the state of his marriage. Last Tuesday, Bray-Ali’s Facebook page included a long piece from Susan Wong, his wife. “I know my husband Josef, and he is a person of integrity,” she wrote. “I don’t make excuses for mistakes Josef makes, but he is human, just like me.” 

In an email I told Bray-Ali I was more concerned with the taxes — after all, council reps help determine the city’s financial state and shape its $9 billion budget. Ignoring tax envelopes is usually not a sign of fiscal prudence. 

I made the point again when we spoke after the Echo Park event, and questioned what this, and going on Voat in the first place, says about his judgment. Elected leaders, I maintained, need to be held to a higher standard. 

He didn’t really address the Voat judgment, discussing instead the lack of qualified or mainstream candidates willing to take on Cedillo, which is a valid point, but a whole other issue. As for the taxes, he acknowledged knowing little about business when he opened Flying Pigeon, and keeping poor track of finances in the early days. Thus he got audited. He said his years of running the business have given him solid financial skills.

“When I made that flippant kind of statement, because I’ve been accused of being flippant in the past, it was really that was when I could bear to open the envelope, not the last time I checked,” he said. “It wasn’t to dismiss it, but it was really, really hard to face up to that. It was a very expensive learning experience.”

Part of what makes this entire turn of events so stunning is that the behavior doesn’t square with the man we saw a few months ago. The Bray-Ali I sat down with in January, and who has conducted the rootsiest of grass-roots campaigns, was charismatic and compelling, a smart guy with an infectious laugh. He impressed with his description of digging into the city’s budget to see where bicycle funds were spent. He felt fresh, a step removed from machine politics.

Do some people feel snowed? Almost certainly. The Times and O’Farrell bought in, and on March 7, a whopping 8,000 people voted for Bray-Ali. 

How many of them still see him as credible, and how many want to get far away? Are his odds one in a hundred, or more like one out of a million? Are we saying he has a chance? 


© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017