Heading into the final stretch of the L.A. Elections on May 21, a new poll by the Pat Brown Institute shows City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilmember Eric Garcetti in a virtual tie, with Greuel leading by one point. The poll reflects a dramatic drop from a USC/LA Timespoll one month ago showing Garcetti with a 10-point lead. But no snapshot of voters' preferences can take into account the unforeseen consequences to Garcetti's campaign as the nasty battle over who will replace him in the 13th Council District threatens to rob him of votes he might have assumed were locked up.
On May 1, Stephen J. Kaufman, attorney for 13th C.D. candidate John Choi, filed an official complaint with the Public Integrity Division of the L.A. County District Attorney's office alleging "illegal electioneering and vote tampering by Mitch O'Farrell campaign workers."
The complaint says the Choi campaign "has received disturbing reports from permanent vote-by-mail voters that campaign workers associated with Mr. Choi's opponent, Mitch O'Farrell, have come to their homes to manipulate them into voting for Mr. O'Farrell, physically complete their VBM (Vote-by-Mail) ballots and collect them for return to the City Clerk. The details of these incidents show a concerted effort to defraud these voters and tamper with the vote-by-mail process, in direct violation of the penal provisions of the California Elections Code and the Election Code of the City of Los Angeles."
The complaint alleges that O'Farrell campaign workers "fraudulently misrepresented the candidates on the ballot. These voters, who are of Armenian descent, were in many cases told they should vote for Sam Kbushyan, a candidate of Armenian descent who ran but lost during the primary election and has since endorsed Mr. O'Farrell. Mr. Kbushyan is not actually on the general election ballot, but voters were nonetheless fraudulently "shown" by O'Farrell campaign workers how to mark the spot on their VBM ballots to vote for him.
"In numerous cases, voters reported that O'Farrell campaign workers physically took possession of the VBM ballots, filled them out and then left with those ballots in hand. In other cases, voters were told to deliver their completed ballots to O'Farrell campaign workers.
"In one particularly brazen occurrence, the campaign was told that O'Farrell campaign workers went to an Armenian senior home, told the elderly residents that they should vote for Sam Kbushyan and then proceeded to fill out each of the seniors' vote-by-mail ballots individually. ... These actions threaten to sabotage the democratic process and may very well affect the outcome of this election."
The complaint provides names, addresses and a transcript of an interview with one of the voters who alleges this happened to him. The campaign has since supplied the District Attorney's office with a long list of additional names, with one Choi campaign staffer telling Frontiers, "In one day we encountered 110 people on one street that had their ballots taken."
If the allegations are true and the VBM ballots were filled out with the intention of only yielding O'Farrell votes in the Armenian community--where there are 3,000 registered voters--it is likely that no other names were marked on the ballot, even though voters might have wished to vote for their current Councilmember Eric Garcetti for mayor.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've never seen such widespread and brazen vote fraud as we have here," Kaufman told Frontiers. "We expect the D.A. to fully investigate this and get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later. And we expect city election officials to take appropriate action to make sure no fraudulent votes are counted in this election. The bottom line here is there are ways to see what's going on and verify how people intend to vote. We still have time to go through the names and ample opportunity to get it right."
Jane Robison, a spokesperson for the D.A.'s office, told Frontiers, "We are reviewing allegations." Robison would answer no further questions.
On May 9, the LA Times reported that the O'Farrell campaign refuted the allegations, saying Choi's campaign was actually to blame. "These are Choi people who are doing this," O'Farrell spokesperson Renee Nahum told The Times. She said the O'Farrell campaign intends to file a complaint of its own with testimony from voters "who said they gave their ballots to Choi campaign workers who falsely claimed that they were representing Kbushyan."
The Times followed up. "Interviews with several voters listed in the Choi complaint suggest improper activity occurred, although it was unclear who was responsible. Eighty-two-year-old Raffik Hambardzumyan told The Times that an Armenian-speaking woman came to his house and helped him and his wife fill out their vote-by-mail ballots about a week ago. Hambardzumyan, who doesn't speak English, said the woman told them they were voting for Kbushyan," The Times reported.
"Galust Khachatryan, 65, said he was recently visited by the same young man and woman, who stopped by his home on behalf of Kbushyan in the primary campaign," The Times reported. "Khachatryan said they didn't help him vote but did take his ballot. Election law prohibits campaign workers from returning voters' ballots. Khachatryan said he couldn't remember the name of the person he voted for, but said it was 'for the candidate Kbushyan supported' and whom he had seen on television with Kbushyan. O'Farrell has appeared on a TV show hosted by Kbushyan that airs on an Armenian-language station."
The allegations of voter fraud and illegal electioneering are just the latest in a string of exchanges between the Choi and O'Farrell campaigns, including allegations from both sides that campaign workers have told Armenian voters not to vote for a candidate because he is gay.
"I don't think [Choi]'s homophobic, and I have not ever said that," O'Farrell told Frontiers after a debate in Silver Lake. "But there are allegations that in the Armenian community--we've received letters--that the Choi campaign has indicated that I'm a gay man in Little Armenia. And that's a cultural flashpoint in some neighborhoods. So that I've heard, but I've not complained about that.
"We've received letters from voters who are upset because they feel some of Choi's campaign has used that in a way that is divisive and has turned people against me," O'Farrell continued. "Look, ugly things get said. He has no direct way of necessarily connecting what might have been said--he wasn't there. So I'm not making a big deal out of it."
O'Farrell's campaign provided two letters. One was from April 24 from Mnatsakan Vardesyan, who lives on Carlton Way. The translated note says, "On April 23, around 7 p.m., they called me regarding the elections. I do not remember the name, but he was a young Eastern Armenian and offered me to vote for John Choi and told me not to vote for Mitch O'Farrell, because he is a 'homosexualist.'"
The other translated note from April 28 reads, "I, Tamara Azatyan, residing at [Heliotrope Dr.] am one of the voters of District 13 in Los Angeles. On April 27 around 4-5 p.m., an Armenian-speaking young person came to our home and presented himself as a John Choi election campaign staff member and started to convince me that I give my vote to #99 John Choi, since I voted for Mitch O'Farrell, who is homosexual."
(You'll find the O'Farrell letters and the Choi complaint on the Frontiers website.)
Choi is still unforgiving about the fliers put on the chairs at the Stonewall Democratic Club endorsement meeting (which O'Farrell won by one vote) identifying a pro-Prop. 8 Korean-American pastor and two others who donated to Choi's campaign. As soon as Choi and his gay campaign manager Shaun Daniels found out about it, they donated the money to the LGBT youth group GLSEN. The check for $2,100 cleared on May 2.
As to the allegations that his campaign has tried to turn voters away from O'Farrell because he's gay, Choi said, "I've been very clear on this issue. I've told my staff and I've said it publicly--if anyone in this campaign has been found to be spouting this kind of hate, they'll be instantly gone--they'll be gone that day. They will no longer be affiliated with this campaign. Meanwhile, my opponent continues to dismiss what was the brandishing of a gun, saying 'It didn't happen; there's no police report' and now, 'It's not our issue; it wasn't affiliated with our campaign.' I'll say again--if anyone in my campaign is caught doing that, they'll be gone--and I haven't heard the same type of response and responsibility from Mitch."
What about the letters? Frontiers asked. "I have not seen them," Choi said. "It's obviously concerning, but at the same time, I've been very clear with my staff that every single one of my staff reports to my campaign manager, and they've said to me they're not participating in that type of language and that type of behavior. Meanwhile, we have dozens and dozens and dozens of people saying someone came and picked their ballot up and someone filled out the ballot for them, and it's that type of voter fraud that's happening every day in this race, and I think it's a real shame to try to turn that around on me. In fact, I've been told that I'm gay by several folks in the community. So this type of divisive language is happening on and on. It's really unfortunate that it's gotten to this, and I think Mitch needs to take responsibility."
Inexplicably, little attention is being paid to the allegation of a man allegedly brandishing a pistol to apparently intimidate young Choi campaign workers.
Hrag Kitsinian, 24, the deputy field director for the Choi campaign who has worked on other political campaigns--including Luis Lopez's recent race for the Assembly--feels that what happened to him and his 16 and 17-year-old canvassers is an issue of public safety. Kitsinian told Frontiers that on April 22 he was supervising a team of canvassers when one called him to say he was being harassed by older O'Farrell supporters while door-knocking near 1632 N. Normandie. They apparently asked the Choi workers how much they were being paid, offered them cigarettes and asked why they were working for Choi because "he hates Armenians and only likes Mexicans and Koreans." They allegedly also said, "Don't canvass these neighborhoods. They belong to Mitch O'Farrell."
Kitsinian said that one of the older men was former 13th C.D. candidate Sam Kbushyan's father, who tried to intimidate Kitsinian as well--"What kind of Armenian are you? You're going against the Armenian candidate?"--and handed him a piece of literature with a photo of Kbushyan and O'Farrell. Kitsinian asked in return, "Where do you see the Armenian candidate running for the 13th district?"
Kitsinian said the harassment continued, with Kbushyan's father allegedly saying in Armenian, "Don't canvass this neighborhood. These are our seniors and our voters"--meaning the voters Kbushyan had registered in the primary. Kitsinian then said he felt Kbushyan's father threatened him. "He said, 'Canvassing is very dangerous. If [I] slip and fall, it wouldn't be anyone else's fault but my own. At this point, I felt very threatened."
Then, Kitsinian said, one of the people whose door the young canvassers knocked on came out and told the older men to "leave these boys alone. Shame on you." Then, out of nowhere, another man with tattoos approached Kitsinian, got in his face and said, "Do we have a problem here?" Kitsinian said he tried to avoid a confrontation but the man "turned his back to the Mitch O'Farrell canvassers, pulled out a gun and chambered a bullet, cocked it back and he looked at me."
At that point, he felt he should get the young canvassers out of the area. "It was a public safety issue." Kitsinian said he called 911, subsequently filed a report with Detective Joe Rios at the Northeast Division of LAPD and identified the man from a six-pack of photos.
Rios confirmed that he took "a signed crime report from the victim, who was out soliciting votes for the John Choi campaign." Rios noted the gun was never pointed at anybody, and that while Kitsinian might have thought the man was part of an Armenian gang because of his tattoos, there is no documentation in the LAPD files indicating the suspect is part of a gang, nor does he have much of a rap sheet. Rios said he went to look for the suspect but couldn't find him and subsequently turned the crime report over to the city attorney to determine if it should be filed and followed up.
For the most part, these fights have been behind the scenes, not evident during the public debates, though the "insider vs. outsider" theme has raised hackles. O'Farrell has lived in the district for 31 years and knows the neighborhoods, while Choi has only lived in Echo Park officially for one year, though he lived within one mile of 13th C.D. in Koreatown and Downtown for years. That led to a heated exchange during a debate inside the Karapetian Hall at St. Garabed Armenian Church on May 8.
"My opponent has continued to attack me from day one, using language like 'new arrival,' 'outsider' and 'not one of us,'" Choi exclaimed, barely able to contain his frustration. "That type of language has been used for decades to raise xenophobic fears of outsiders and immigrants."
Choi cited a Communist-suggestive red campaign mailer with a grainy picture of him under the words "not from our community." O'Farrell said he didn't like the mailer either. "I thought it was a terrible picture," he said. "Any sort of hint of discrimination has no place in a campaign." But, O'Farrell added, "The fact is my opponent is new to the district."
O'Farrell and Choi also clashed over labor. O'Farrell said that while he had come from a union household, "you need to stand up to them as well at times. It's time for leadership to put what is now some out-of-control power in check," though he said he was not talking about the janitors but the "union bosses."
Choi found it "hard to swallow" that O'Farrell came from a union household but was nonetheless "demonizing" unions, which, he said, are "nothing more than average people fighting for a decent lifestyle." Choi said, "It sounds like you're taking talking points from Scott Walker," referring to the Republican Wisconsin governor who successfully curtailed the power of unions in his state. Choi said he thinks his experience and union support enables him to be a better negotiator. "I'm going to be able to sit across the table and be an honest broker."
Interestingly, not once during the 90-minute debate in Hollywood was the word "gay" ever mentioned. Indeed, O'Farrell said that, if elected, he'd emulate his friend and mentor City Councilmember Tom LaBonge rather than his lesbian predecessor Jackie Goldberg or his former boss, Eric Garcetti. To be sure, however, whoever wins will have an agenda full of community fence-mending.