DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In the election cycle that culminates on May 21, the mayor’s race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti has garnered the lion’s share of the headlines. The City Attorney slugfest between incumbent Carmen Trutanich and challenger Mike Feuer has gained attention for its unending vitriol. The Controller’s race between Dennis Zine and Ron Galperin has — OK, it hasn’t done much of anything, because almost no one in the city has any idea what L.A.’s official controller does.

Those campaigns have overshadowed other important races, including the contest for the First District City Council seat being vacated by a termed-out Ed Reyes. The lack of attention is too bad, because the battle pitting Reyes’ chief of staff Jose Gardea against Gil Cedillo, who spent much of the last 15 years in the state legislature, is full of intrigue, oddities, big money and nasty mailers. It is easily the best political race that almost no one is watching.

It nearly ended March 5, when Cedillo notched 8,390 votes while Gardea pulled 7,392 ballots. Cedillo had 49.3% of the turnout, just under the majority needed to win outright. Instead, democracy dictates that the top two finishers advance to the runoff.

Actually, democracy is the wrong word if you take into account an accusation that Cedillo leveled during a recent Downtown forum. When asked about low voter turnout and politicians establishing partnerships with nonprofits, Cedillo, as he sometimes does, ignored the question and spun in a completely unrelated direction. He hit the “change” theme, which plays well politically, then veered toward… wait for it… Cold War era-politicking.

“City Hall is like the old Soviet Union,” Cedillo remarked. “It’s about protecting itself and there’s not going to be change from the inside.”

The line is as fantastic as it is farfetched. Is Cedillo, who first won a State Assembly seat in 1998, comparing Reyes to old bloc leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev? Does he think Reyes is settled in the First District equivalent of Red Square building up a nuclear arsenal to hand over to Gardea.

Even more interesting is what the comparison means for Cedillo himself. If he’s the change agent, then he’s probably a CD1 Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced the openness concept of “glasnost,” which made him adored by the West and hated in the fading USSR (though there is little evidence he could become “Gorby II”). Maybe he’s salty Boris Yeltsin. Or perhaps Cedillo fancies himself a Los Angeles Vladimir Putin. The mind boggles.

After the debate I asked Gardea about the remark. “You’ve just been compared to Soviet Russia,” I said. “Do you agree?”

He responded with a bemused smile.

“Nyet.”

Smooth Orator

Because I’m somewhat of a masochist, I do things like attend forums and press events where there are more people standing behind the podium holding signs than there are folks in front listening to the remarks. Such was the case last Thursday when I headed to a spot just west of Downtown to watch Cedillo and John Choi, a candidate for the 13th District seat, endorse each other and pledge to work together, assuming they both get elected.

While completely artificial, the event revealed how polished a candidate Cedillo is. With his six years in the assembly and eight years in the State Senate, and plenty of time in the spotlight for propelling bills including the California Dream Act (which paved the way for undocumented students to apply for financial aid), his delivery is effortless and smooth. At the podium he’s in his element, smiling wide and speaking confidently. He connects with the crowd in a way that Gardea, whose manner is a mix of folksy and wonky, has yet to master.

No doubt that approach, along with his Sacramento experience, have helped Cedillo curry favor with those who, depending on your point of view, are either grassroots supporters or dastardly outside special interests. According to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, Cedillo has benefitted from more than $500,000 spent on his behalf through independent groups. Entities including the disparate political arms of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the union representing DWP employees have dropped huge cash on mailers and other support.

Gardea, by contrast, has seen $26,000 directed his way through unaffiliated interests.

The mailers on both sides have been frequent and forceful — Team Cedillo regularly labels Gardea a “failure,” and the Gardea camp ravages Cedillo for going on international junkets.

Then there are the veteran politicos’ respective efforts to cast themselves as agents of change.

“If you want change, then you have to elect somebody different,” Cedillo said at an April forum. “You have candidates who come from Sacramento and who have a culture of collaborating and meeting incredible challenges.”

When I can pull together a dozen people who think that Sacramento pols generally meet incredible challenges, I’ll let you know.

At the same event, Gardea tried pushing the theory that backing from labor and business groups means more of the same.

“When you understand that those political pressures come from very specific interests that really want to maintain a certain status quo, then you come to the question of what really is change,” he said. “In this case change is myself, who understands City Hall, who understands the community, who doesn’t like to do backroom deals because if I did, ladies and gentlemen, I’d be sitting here in front of you with the Chamber of Commerce endorsement, with the Central City Association endorsement, and countless other groups.”

Yes, he really uttered “ladies and gentlemen,” and yes, he actually argued that the guy who has been chief of staff to a sitting councilman for a dozen years is the change agent.

Money Game

The First District is a huge territory that stretches from MacArthur Park through City West and Chinatown and up into the Northeast L.A. communities of Glassell Park and Highland Park. Although it contains more than 82,000 eligible voters, only 22% turned out in March. Cedillo’s first place finish that month and his outside financial backing would seem to give him the advantage on election day. Then again, one could argue that his failure to win outright with so much bonus cash makes him vulnerable, especially if the outside interests don’t spend as much this time.

One of the most interesting aspects of the campaign has been the money game. Gardea initially surged to a big fundraising lead. Then, three weeks before the election, the situation changed radically. Gardea raised just $5,095 in the Feb. 17-27 reporting period.

During that same 10-day stretch, Cedillo hoovered up an astounding $103,470. It far surpassed the cash raised by any candidate for any council seat during that time. The second highest performer was 11th District winner Mike Bonin, who pulled in about $77,000. From there it dropped to the $33,000 secured by Ninth District contender Curren Price. Cedillo’s haul even surpassed the combined $65,000 raised by City Attorney runoff candidates Feuer and Trutanich.

Looking at Ethics Department documents reveals that a cadre of L.A.’s business elite showed Cedillo the money. Developer Rick Caruso donated the maximum individual amount of $700, as did the McCourt Group and Casey Wasserman. Over at Anschutz Entertainment Group, meanwhile, 11 individuals gave a combined $6,750, with seven people, including one executive assistant, donating the maximum amount.

What accounts for the crazy cash discrepancy during that period?

“I was talking to voters,” said Gardea. “He was talking to funders. It’s consistent with what his campaign has become.”

Counters Cedillo, “Well, I think my opponent lost his advantage.”

With just two weeks until election day, only one thing is certain: The barbs and negative mailers that both sides have been rolling for months will become more frequent and even uglier. The race is too close to expect otherwise.

Contact Jon Regardie at regardie@downtownnews.com.

©Los Angeles Downtown News.