It’s the final weeks of the presidential race and, as usual, entertainers are getting out the vote for the Democratic nominee.
But in Los Angeles, some members of the entertainment community are focused on a race that’s much closer to home. Many celebrities and TV writers are rallying behind Nithya Raman, a Harvard grad and an urban planner who is running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in District 4.
Raman, the former director of Times Up’s entertainment division, is running as a champion of progressive causes, with support of Ground Game L.A. and the L.A. chapters of the Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. She argues that the council — which is made up of 13 Democrats and one independent — has failed to take full advantage of its power to enact change in policing, homelessness, rent control and clean energy.
For the first time, L.A.’s local elections this year will coincide with the presidential vote. Raman is hoping to galvanize that energy and turn out residents who don’t typically think about local races, including younger voters and renters. Tapping into Hollywood’s political energy — which is typically focused almost entirely on national affairs — has been a big part of her campaign.
“I think I was guilty like a lot of people of focusing a bit too much on national-level issues,” says Jesse Zwick, a film and TV writer who has volunteered on Raman’s campaign. “But as the homelessness crisis kept getting worse, I felt I had to do something. Nithya has done a good job of showing how much we could be doing if we paid attention and expected more of city officials.”
Raman is running against David Ryu, who was first elected five years ago. Ryu finished first in the March primary, with 44.7% of the vote. Raman trailed just behind, with 41.1%. In response to the challenge, Ryu has touted his record — notably, a ban on contributions from developers that came in response to a City Hall bribery scandal.
“I am way ahead of the curve,” Ryu says in an interview. “It’s not about tweeting about something and talking about it. Talk is cheap. Who can make that progressive talk into action? I have done that.”
The district runs from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks, covering many wealthy industry-intensive neighborhoods including the Hollywood Hills. Ryu was elected by casting himself as an outsider who would push back against overdevelopment. In office, he has pursued increased regulation on hillside construction and was a leading voice against SB 50, a state bill that would have forced cities to allow greater housing development.
Raman comes at the issue from the opposite perspective. She wants to increase housing supply by paring back local planning regulations. In rhetorical terms, however, the two can sound very similar on the issue — with each supporting “affordable” housing, opposing developer contributions, and opposing state intervention.
“She has moved to the center. He has moved to center,” says Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, who argues that single-family homeowners feel threatened by pressure for greater density in their neighborhoods. “I think they’ll look to the candidate who will best protect them.”
In an interview, Raman says that recent racial justice protests have focused voters’ attention on how urban planning has “kept people of color, Black Americans, out of neighborhoods.”
“People were making connections between injustice and the practices of local government in ways I hadn’t seen before,” she says. “The developer issue is a problem… But the problems around housing and homelessness are much much bigger than that. We have a system that produces exclusively the most expensive kind of housing.”
More supporters of Raman’s campaign have come on board over the summer, as they sought an outlet for frustration in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Raman has pointed out that the council voted unanimously to back a measure that was supported by the police union — and opposed by the chief — that weakened oversight.
Rekha Shankar, former head writer at CollegeHumor, said she began to tune in to police commission meetings and ultimately decided to volunteer for Raman.
“Why have I been ignoring hyper-local politics?” she asked herself. “I decided I need to participate in this and I have all the time in the world right now… Work has been really, really slow. There are a lot of creatives using their power for good.”
Raman is married to Vali Chandrasekaran, an executive producer of “Modern Family” whose credits also include “My Name is Earl” and “30 Rock.” More than a quarter of Raman’s contributions — about 240 of them — come from self-identified writers, including Tina Fey and Michael Schur. Natalie Portman, a friend from Harvard, recorded a video endorsement during the primary, as did Jane Fonda.
“If you liked Leslie Knope as a character, you will like Nithya Raman,” Schur said. “She’s very Leslie Knope-y.”
Over the course of an hour, Schur did not stick entirely to local affairs. At one point, Schur and guest Aubrey Plaza went on a lengthy digression about Joe Biden and a time when they were given a tour of the White House.
Ryu noted that he has the backing of IATSE locals that represent stagehands, set medics and grips.
“It’s not about Hollywood stars,” he said. “It’s about the actual working families — the people below the line.”