As March 3, approaches candidates for City Council District 14 continue to campaign in hopes to win the seat being vacated by José Huízar. In early December, the City Clerk announced that only five candidates will appear on the ballot. One of them is self-proclaimed grassroots candidate Cyndi Otteson, the Los Angeles-born daughter of Korean immigrants who lives in Eagle Rock and has served for the past three years as vice president of that community’s Neighborhood Council.
Boyle Heights Beat recently spoke with Otteson about her race and the issues that she hopes to address as the first Korean American woman to serve on the City Council and the first woman to represent CD 14.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: Why did you decide to run for City Council?
Cyndi Otteson: I’ve been serving our community for many years now. And while I was serving, [I] launched a nonprofit with my best friend Miry, we activated a nonprofit called Miry’s List, that crowdsources supplies for new arrival refugee families settling here in California. That happened after Trump took office and in the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.
So when I found out that there were two really well known politicians running in this race, I thought I could do a better job. And I’m going to get involved because we deserve elected officials that are going to be bettering our communities. I have two children, a five- and a seven-year-old. And the stakes are really high right now. We have the worst air quality in the nation. We have 36,000 people experiencing homelessness, and we have children who are being hit and struck by cars while walking on their way to school. And right now at the City Council, we have elected leaders who are voting unanimously a lot of the time. So there’s a lot of status quo that’s happening and things aren’t getting fixed and things aren’t getting done.
That’s why I’m running for this office, to make sure that my children have a better future in this city. I was born here. I’m raising my kids here and I want to grow old here. And it’s time that we reconcile the fact that we’re one of the richest cities in the world yet we have all of these problems that are fixable. And I believe that the City Council can be doing way more to make sure that we have a brighter future.
Boyle Heights Beat: Tell me about this District 14 the district you are running for.
CO: Sure. It represents roughly 250,000 people and includes the majority of downtown, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock –where I live now– Garvanza, a little bit of Highland Park – it cuts right at York Boulevard north of New York. It includes the Arroyo Seco and it also includes a tiny bit of Glassell Park. So it’s a pretty big district with a lot of different needs across all the neighborhoods.
We need, we actually probably should be having double if not triple the amount of City Council members. When the City Charter was enacted in 1925, we had about a million people that lived in the city of Los Angeles. Now almost 100 years later, we have 4 million people and we still have the same number of City Council members. So what we need to do, is have elected officials that are wanting to make sure we have equity across our neighborhoods and are willing to break up the power, so that we can have people who represent the unique neighborhoods of CD 14 at City Council. I am for making sure that we have better governance at City Hall, and that includes making sure we have more representation across the board.
BHB: What history do you have with this district?
CO: I’m a daughter of Korean immigrants. In fact, today, I was with my parents earlier and we were just kind of retracing the steps. I was born at California Medical hospital, which is now in CD 14. My parents… they got married and moved into an apartment in Koreatown. At the time there were a lot of landlords who didn’t want them to live there, who said that the apartments were full, that there were no vacancies. And then my mother realized that there were vacancies there. They just didn’t want Korean people moving in. So one of the apartment buildings that we visited today, which is the apartment building that I was born in –it’s on Manhattan place one street in from Western and Ninth Street in Koreatown– she said the reason that they ended up living there was because there was a sign outside that said “Koreans welcome.”
Just speaking about the background that I have, in terms of working with new arrival refugees, and in the current state that we are with undocumented people who are seeking asylum here, that is really near and dear to my heart, because I believe that no human being is illegal. I believe that we should be taking care of everybody that comes to seek asylum in the United States. And now I have a sign in front of my lawn that says “All are welcome.” So for me, it’s important that I fight for the legacy… that my parents came here to create a better life for their children and fought really hard and worked really hard to do that. I’m only successful today because of the sacrifices that they made. Therefore, it is my obligation and my duty to make sure that I am fighting for more equity for people here who don’t have the same opportunities that I have now.
BHB: You mentioned a little bit about your nonprofit, and the impact that it’s had. How will this experience with this nonprofit impact how you serve as Councilmember for District 14.
CO: That’s a great question. Everything that I do when I’m in office as the first female council member to represent CD 14 will be through a lens of putting our families and neighborhoods first. A lot of times we see politicians get into the office and put themselves first. They make choices and decisions that improve and strengthen their campaign or their political power. And everything that I’ll be doing as this council member is making sure that we’re fighting for our most vulnerable.
[I worked] with resettling new arrival refugees who were escaping war-torn countries [and] experienced a lot of trauma and abuse. It’s quite difficult to come to a brand new country and then also be expected to attend training, expected to get a new job, especially when they aren’t stabilized. So that experience has shaped the way that I would inform not only my policy, but also making sure that people who are experiencing homelessness are able to get the resources that they need on a path to permanent supportive housing, and for an opportunity for them to have a better life with more resources.
The three pillars that we identified in my work with Miry’s List are “Survive, Hive and Thrive.” While people are in the survive phase, it’s just what it says, that you’re just trying to survive every day, get through the day, make sure that you have enough food to eat. But during that pivotal stage, it’s important that we stabilize people and get them into housing. Once we stabilize them into housing, that’s when we can actually hive around them… which is to pair them with advocates who are checking in on them. We’re making sure that they have the things that they need, making sure to help them with paperwork. We’ve all helped parents and relatives to navigate healthcare forms, making sure that their bills are being paid, those types of things. Only then, when we pair them with advocates, do they have an opportunity to enter in that last pillar, which is thrive, making sure that they’re on a path to independence, that they have an income, that they’re working toward education and job training, so that they can have a chance for success. So that’s really what informs my work, and how I’ll lead. And the council office is making sure that every single piece of policy is informed by how will this benefit families and neighborhoods in our district, versus how will this benefit my own political career.
BHB: Let’s get into some of the issues in District 14 and specifically Boyle Heights. One issue here is the influx of charter schools. In your website, you emphasize the importance of public schools. How do you plan on resolving the lack of support for public schools, and a perceived growing support towards charter schools.
CO: The first thing is we have to do is make people aware of the problem. I am not against any parent that wants to send their children [to a charter school] and give their children the best opportunity to education. However, I will criticize a system that takes money out of public schools, and gives them to charter schools which oftentimes are led by nonprofits. They’re backed by corporate interests. So corporations should not be benefiting or profiting off of money that should be going to schools and for children.
We are at a crisis right now, where our schools in California [are] consistently in the bottom 10 of per-pupil spending. And we used to be top 10 in the nation. And so we need to make people fully aware of what’s happening, which is that all of our schools are severely underfunded. Charter schools began as a way to test and prove some new ideas and concepts. But what happened along the way is that corporations started to take advantage of that. And that ended up draining our local neighborhood public schools. So what we need are leaders that are fully aware of the problem and are educating parents and the community and using their platform to make sure that we are fully funding our schools.
There’s an initiative called Schools and Communities First [that] will be on the ballot in November, that is going to help fund our schools. So that will help with the per-pupil spend. But we also need to make sure that we have elected officials in office who are not backed by charter school interests.
I’m running a 100% clean money campaign, which means I am not taking a penny from charter school interests, from corporate interests, from fossil fuel industry and from developers, because that is the way that we get to better governance. When you have people who are giving you money, they will feel uniquely compelled to have more of your favor. And you will make decisions based off of that. That is what we have traditionally seen. That is why we have a current council member who’s being investigated by the FBI. That is why developers have backed and given money to the different political candidates. But what I am doing is running 100% clean money campaign to signal to people that I am not here for them. I am here for the families and communities here in our neighborhoods. And so it’s important that we have elected officials that understand that.
I would encourage everyone who’s paying attention to this race to look at the money that is coming in to other candidates, the well-known candidates, and look to see who’s funding their campaigns. When you look through my donors, you’ll see it is my family. They’re my neighbors, there are people who live in this district and there are people who, you know, used to employ me. I’m a businesswoman that has spent 20 years managing millions of dollars in advertising campaigns. A lot of the donors that you’ll see are people that I’ve worked for, that I’ve done a really good job for. That’s the difference between a grassroots candidate and an established politician. As you go forward, you’ll see the same kind of donors making that those donations to their campaigns.
BHB: A Recent USC study revealed that there are high amounts of lead in the teeth of children, possibly linked to the closed Exide plant and its impact to the local community. The places where they found the most lead in the children’s teeth were Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. I’m not sure if Exide would be within your powers, but what plans do you have in order to reduce these types of contaminations from happening again?
CO: Yeah, I mean, LADWP is under the jurisdiction of the City Council, and the least that we can do is make sure that our water is clean to drink and the air is clean to breathe. What I have seen and what we’ve all seen in Boyle Heights is environmental racism. It is taking advantage of communities of color and that is an issue that is extremely important to me. And as a person that is advocating and has two children, making sure that we are working with companies and corporations, and anybody that comes into our neighborhood, we need to make sure to protect our most vulnerable. So making sure that there are repercussions for companies that are polluting our air and our water and making sure that we can track back to accountability.
I have a friend who teaches at the high school [in Cudahy where] Delta Airlines just dropped a bunch of gasoline fuel, and we have to look at not only what should happen after that, but why did it happen and why are there certain schools that are within the flight path of airplanes and other schools not, and that’s something that we need to make sure to address from an equity standpoint. My promise and pledge is that I will be an advocate for families in Boyle Heights for anybody that has been subjected to environmental racism and making sure that we have protections in place for children and making sure that we are testing the soil, replacing the soil. Right now there are boundaries that Exide has drawn, where there’s one house that is within the boundaries of that jurisdiction, and then one house that isn’t, and that needs to be addressed as well. Too long have corporations been in power, and what we need is more elected officials that will be putting people into power and making sure that we are protecting our children.
BHB: On that note, what are your plans to make Boyle Heights, as well as the surrounding communities in CD 14, safer and cleaner.
CO: For Boyle Heights and all the neighborhoods in our district, we need to increase green space, we need to make sure that any new development that comes here is coming before our Neighborhood Councils and before the community, and any negotiations that happen should be taking place up front, not behind closed doors with backdoor deals. Every development that comes in should have an inclusionary zoning clause, which means that there will be a large percentage of affordable housing; that if there’s any developer that comes in that the community we’ll have a chance to speak on it and that it should be a net win. Otherwise, that shouldn’t happen, which means we should be increasing park space or fixing a broken sidewalk or planting a large amount of trees to clean the air. These are the things that we should be fighting for in our neighborhoods, to ensure that we have pocket parks, more green space and safe, walkable streets, so that we can incentivize more people to get outside and play and walk in our neighborhoods. Investing in public transportation, to make sure that people have clean and safe access to public transportation, so that we can get more cars off the road. And especially in Boyle Heights, where we have seen many homes destroyed by the freeways that surround Boyle Heights and that there’s heavy traffic, we should be having the richest urban forest within Boyle Heights because of the fact that Boyle Heights is surrounded by freeways.
So these are the things that I will be focused on, also increasing safety for streets, making sure that we have walkable, safe streets. There’s a plan already put in place by Mayor Garcetti called Vision Zero, and in 2015 [it declared] there were 20 years to get to zero [pedestrian] deaths by 2025. Recently, looking at the numbers from 2019, we’ve actually seen an increase in cyclists and pedestrian deaths. And we need to look at why that’s happening. We need to break down the silos that are happening between LADOT and at the City Council, making sure that we’re using data to inform why our streets are so dangerous right now.
Our streets are deadly by design, they’re made for cars, we are a car culture. And so what is happening is more cars are coming down the road, it’s becoming more congested, and then they’re raising the speed limit to accommodate those cars. We actually should be going the opposite way, we should be slowing down traffic, widening our sidewalks. We should be making it easier for people to walk to destinations, versus drive.
BHB: District 14 also includes Skid Row, which is home to thousands of homeless residents. The most recent homeless count showed that the number of people on the streets was actually increasing. What’s your plan on working on this issue?
CO: Yeah, there was a 16% increase from 2018 to 2019: 36,000 people in our city, and the majority of people in Skid Row. What we need to do first, we have to decentralize services and make sure that we have services that are available across the entire city for anybody experiencing homelessness. But we also need to approach this from a very human level. We are adopting a housing first approach, which is something that the city has gone all-in on, which is why we are spending $1.2 billion on building housing. But while we do that, we also need to make it easier for people who are living on our streets to come into a shelter. The way that we do that is by establishing trust and lowering the barriers. Oftentimes that includes getting rid of curfew, getting rid of sobriety as a prerequisite to coming into a shelter. We need to also stop criminalizing homelessness. We see what happens when we see sweeps and oftentimes people’s medical records and medicines are thrown out. That only exacerbates the problem. We need to increase safe parking in the city, where we have the opportunity for people living in their cars to be able to safely park in a lot that is patrolled and has security guard.
We need to increase access, but we also need to address the cause. If there’s a 16% increase, that means people who weren’t homeless before are now falling into homelessness. And that is because it’s getting impossible to live in the city of Los Angeles. It’s getting really impossible to afford a place to live, so we need to protect renters in the city. We need to treat renters the way that we’ve prioritized homeowners, and we need to make sure that renters are able to stay in the buildings in which they live. Looking at how we can do that is potentially taxing larger corporations that own apartment buildings with large vacancy rates. And using that to fund legal right to counsel: when we see residents paired with legal services that should be free, then we see a higher percentage of people keeping in staying in their homes.
That’s what we could do to prevent that increase from happening but, at the same time, we need to add more services like mental health services, in partnership with the LAPD [and the LAFD}. We’ve seen that happen where the fire department and the police department have partnered up to make sure that every single person experiences homelessness knows the options and the resources of the city. And it’s a complex issue. It’s not one thing that’s causing it, but it’s many different things causing it. So it takes a leader that is able to talk to people that have been experiencing homelessness and find out what the root problems are, so that we can actually have informed policies and make it better.
BHB: You talked a little bit about rent and housing affordability. Aside from the plans that you stated, what are your plans to increase rent and housing affordability?
CO: Making sure that we have that inclusionary zoning class so any new development should not be displacing anybody in the community. And that if there’s a development that’s coming in and would displace 20 people that, instead of having a developer make 10% of units [affordable], it should be the same amount of people that they were displacing, and there shouldn’t be any term limits to that. People who live in the neighborhood should stay in the neighborhoods. And we need to do more to take that power back. And the way that we do that is by making sure we elect leaders who aren’t being funded by developers.
BHB: You mentioned earlier that you have past experience of being a businesswoman. What are your plans to support small businesses when you become a counselor?
CO: There should be a small business liaison at every single field office. Everything that is done within the city should be first looked at through the lens of how can we support our small businesses, including food catering sourcing. Every year, we always have these big holiday festivities and parades and gatherings. And every year I see the same types of toys come through that are bought internationally, probably for cheap. There are ways that we can make those events community events, where we invite the local businesses to come out. And also we should be supporting them through instead of giving out gifts that we’re buying overseas and are cheap, we should be buying them from the local shops and working with local vendors. This is something that we can do across every part of the district. Also to have events where we have a Friday night out in each community, that’s something that can activate the local businesses, where you have music and you have events, you have food and family activities and that can really activate the local economies. We know that when you spend money locally, those dollars stay local, that local business owners are hiring students and people that live in in our community.
But we also need leaders who are going to be making sure to support our local businesses. We saw a tax break for the largest corporations, what we need to do is make sure that our small businesses and local businesses who are disproportionately having to pay for high fees and licenses and things like that have a partner at City Hall.
BHB: Because of some of the issues that you mentioned earlier, involving the current council member for District 14 –José Huízar–some people in Boyle Heights are a little skeptical of candidates running for District 14. How do you plan on getting the trust of the local community?
CO: I plan on gaining the trust by earning it, by being here in the community, by showing up to events, by meeting with community organizers, by being at the Neighborhood Councils, by learning about the issues and actively helping, and bringing my experience to learn, and then also to help actively problem solving. I am running my race, the way that I would run my office, I have been to every single Neighborhood Council within this district, people have seen me in the community. I wish I had more time. But that is the way that I will lead you’ll always get honesty from me. I’ll be responsive and accountable. And I’ll always tell you the truth and why something didn’t go that way.
From my office, it’ll be a policy that you make sure to actively respond to people within a specific time frame and if you can’t get an answer, within 24 hours or 48 hours or a week, that you call them and follow up and let them know that this is why I haven’t been able to get an answer to you, but I’m still working on it.
A lot of times we see elected officials lead from a place where they’re listening to the people that are the most active, organized and loud. But a voice [that] is under represented [is from] people who are working two and three jobs and don’t have the time to be able to come out to a community meeting, don’t have the time to come and speak in front of the Neighborhood Council, or don’t have the skills or the language to. It will be my policy to make sure that we have staff and that myself will be available and responsive in making sure to lift up quiet voices and find out how I can better serve and help.
BHB: The majority of the candidates running today in this district are women. How does that feel? What kind of impact do you think this has?
CO: I think it’s amazing. I think that we need to see more women leading and running. No woman has ever been elected to represent CD 14. And in my research, I was googling every single person’s name, every man that has come before and has represented this district, and each one has been associated with scandal. And so to be running with a majority of female candidates, makes me proud, and I have to acknowledge the other woman who has stepped up and is challenging the status quo in this race. I’m friendly with [Raquel Zamora], I text with her. I encouraged her, I’m happy and proud that she is running, I share the endorsement from UCLA with her. She is a mother. I think that when we see people who look like us, that it inspires us to see what is possible. And it’s important to address equity, especially now, when we only have two women serving on the City Council. We have two out of 15, just two women out of 15 council members. And so even being able to get one more woman elected to the city council is huge. Because we have a unique perspective, we are leaders and we’re leading our families, and it’s time for us to have the opportunity and the platform to lead at a broader scale.
BHB: Likewise the majority of the candidates are Latino, and most of the community that CD 14 represents is also Latino. How do you plan on reaching out to this community?
CO: I’m already reaching out. I know I’m not a Latina, but I am a daughter of immigrants. And I also founded a nonprofit that helps new arrival refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, all different languages. Language has never been a barrier for me to help, and for me to problem solve, but I also feel like the principles in which my family came here and the circumstances are very similar, and that I am also a woman who is Asian American, is Korean American. And I believe that there are shared and common experiences here that
are deeply part of the Los Angeles culture that we share. So I’m already reaching out, I’m here, I’m ready to work and I’m here to serve. Those are the taglines of my campaign, making sure to prioritize resources so that language isn’t a barrier. Whether that’s employing people and staff that is able to speak Spanish, I have a website that is translated into Spanish, because I recognize that that’s really, really important. But I’ve never seen language as a barrier to connect with people and to help people.
BHB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CO: Just thank you so much for
giving me the time and giving me this opportunity. It’s really, really
important. This is a really important race right now. And we as people have the
power to talk to our neighbors and our friends. And I just really encourage
everybody who is following this race, who’s a resident of CD14, to look at the
donors and the money. There’s a lot of money being spent in this race. And that
money is all public knowledge. You can see who is funding and backing the
politicians in this race who have been established and also the grassroots
candidates. And I think that it’s time for us to look at the principles and
look at people. We know when people are being dishonest are not upfront with
us, and we have the power to change the status quo. Right now in City Hall, we
have the power to elect new leaders with new ideas. And it’s time to kind of
disrupt that formula and that pattern of corruption in this district, so I really
encourage everybody to start paying attention to this race and looking at the
money that’s coming and looking at the way that the candidates in this race are
running their race. Thank you. Thank you.