Council Race in 13th District Gets Ugly

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 Rafu Wire and Staff Reports

The race for a Hollywood-area City Council seat grew increasingly acrimonious Friday, with the District Attorney’s Office continuing to review allegations of voter fraud by one candidate, who responded with a legal demand for his opponent to stop making “false and defamatory statements.”

Image from a controversial anti-Choi, pro-O’Farrell mailer.

District 13 candidate John Choi’s complaint to the District Attorney’s Office, filed earlier this month and made public last week, touched off the latest round of heated exchanges between him and opponent Mitch O’Farrell. They are battling to replace Eric Garcetti, who is running for mayor.

Choi alleges volunteers for O’Farrell’s campaign are misleading voters in the Armenian community by making it appear that O’Farrell is running on a ticket with a candidate of Armenian descent, when in fact that candidate, Sam Kbushyan, did not make it into the May 21 runoff. Kbushyan has endorsed O’Farrell.

The complaint, submitted by Choi’s attorney, also contends O’Farrell’s volunteers have been collecting vote-by-mail ballots and telling voters they would mail them to the City Clerk’s Office. The attorney also claims volunteers for O’Farrell’s campaign have been filling out ballots for voters, some of whom include residents at an Armenian senior home.

Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said the complaint was being reviewed, but the office had not yet opened an investigation into the allegations. She said the office reviews all complaints it receives, but that “is not the same as an investigation.”

O’Farrell responded to Choi’s accusations Friday with a “cease and desist” letter from his attorney accusing Choi of making “false and defamatory statements,” using copyrighted news stories in mailers, violating election and civil rights laws, and using false information to raise money for his campaign.

He said Choi’s complaint was a distraction from policy issues affecting the 13th District.

O’Farrell has accused Choi of being an outsider, saying he only moved into the district last year. Choi, who lived in Fullerton from the ages of 6 to 18, said he has been a resident of Los Angeles for the last 10 years, living in West Los Angeles, Koreatown and the downtown area.

O’Farrell, who worked in Garcetti’s office, said he has lived in the district for 31 years. But Choi said O’Farrell only moved into the district last year after the district’s boundaries were changed.

O’Farrell’s spokeswoman, Renee Nahum, said O’Farrell voted for four council members in the district.

“Who did Mr. Choi vote for, if he voted at all?” she asked.

Choi contends that by painting him as an “outsider,” O’Farrell is using “code language that has been used for decades to instill fears around immigrants, particularly Asian immigrants.”

Choi’s supporters pointed to a mailer funded by North Vine Holdings LLC, developer of the controversial Millennium Tower high-rise in Hollywood. The mailer, with yellow lettering on a red background, includes a photo of Choi with his eyes nearly closed and text calling him “transplanted” and “not from our community.”

The mailer also charges that Choi puts “special interests ahead of constituents” and is “inexperienced and trying to buy the election.”

“I’d thought by 2013 we would have moved past these … race-baiting attacks,” said Dana Moon Dorsett, president of the Korean Community Lawyers Association. “But putting a squinty-eyed picture with the colors of the Chinese flag and then calling the guy an outsider? The xenophobia here needs to stop. John has lived in the district nearly twice as long as his opponent. But what they’re really talking about isn’t how long he’s lived here; they’re just trying to make him look like a dangerous foreigner. Disgraceful.

“I call on all the elected officials who appeared on this race-baiting mailer to repudiate it, because by not speaking out they are condoning this type of behavior and campaigning.”

The mailer, which calls O’Farrell “the best successor to Eric Garcetti,” includes photos of the candidate with Councilmembers Bill Rosendahl and Tom LaBonge and a quote from Rep. Xavier Becerra.

O’Farrell disavowed the mailer on May 8 during a debate with Choi inside Karapetian Hall at St. Garabed Armenian Church, KPCC reports. “I didn’t like it any more than you did, John,” O’Farrell said. “I thought it was a terrible picture. Any sort of hint of discrimination has no place in a campaign.”

At the same time, he maintained, “The fact is my opponent is new to the district. I am the local candidate.”

If elected, Choi would be the second Asian American and the first Korean American on the City Council. He has received support from Asian Americans statewide and across the country. The first Asian American councilmember, Mike Woo, served from 1985 to 1993, and also ran for mayor.

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