It’s not easy to book a Zoom window with Nithya Raman. The 39-year-old urban planner, homelessness activist, and mother of five-year-old twins is running for Los Angeles City Council in the 4th District—which includes parts of Koreatown, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and many other swathes of L.A.’s sprawling metropolis—and one week before Election Day, her schedule is packed.
We find time to catch up on a Saturday morning, but before we do, she sends a question through her communications director: Will our interview be recorded for public consumption? “She wants to know if she should put on makeup,” her staffer explains. “My hair is wet,” I assure her. Secure in one another’s lack of camera-readiness, Raman and I press on.
Raman’s deeply progressive campaign against incumbent David Ryu has attracted significant attention in recent months, garnering a coveted endorsement from Bernie Sanders himself. Raman’s policies on climate change and immigration are progressive even by L.A. standards, but perhaps the most striking element of Raman’s campaign has been her ability to mobilize volunteers in a pandemic.
“The thesis of our entire campaign has been that there is an incredible disjuncture between the very progressive values that most Angelenos hold—young or old—and what is coming out of City Hall,” says Raman, perhaps referring to, among other things, a city budget that sparked protests this summer after increasing police funding by nearly $120 million. The 15-member city council is the governing body for the city; members are elected for four-year terms.
While the primary is usually the decisive City Council election for this very blue city, because Ryu received just 45% of the vote to Raman’s 41, the two have been forced into a runoff this fall. The election is unique in that Raman and Ryu are both young, liberal candidates of color, albeit with very different agendas; in a way, their rivalry can be seen as a microcosmic representation of the gains that leftists have strived to make within (or outside of) the Democratic establishment.
“If we can just educate people about the power of City Hall and why it matters, then we can actually create a movement locally that ensures that City Hall reflects our values and our incredibly pressing needs, which have become so much more acute during COVID-19,” Raman continues. Despite the pandemic, her campaign has gathered about 2,000 volunteers thus far: “For a City Council race in Los Angeles, that’s really unheard of,” she says. “Nithya is the first local candidate I have volunteered for,” says Mitra Jouhari, an L.A.-based comedian and homelessness activist. “I am so hopeful when I think about Los Angeles with Nithya Raman on the City Council.” She has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and various other L.A. chapters of progressive groups.
Raman, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Kerala, India when she was six years old, got a master’s degree in urban planning at MIT and honed her understanding of large-scale homelessness and poverty while working in Delhi as an adult; after moving to L.A. in 2013, she worked for the City Administrative Officer of Los Angeles, compiling a report on city spending on housing instability that noted the disproportionate amount of money that was spent on jailing people experiencing homelessness.
Now, Raman brings that technical experience to her advocacy for unhoused populations in L.A., where a homelessness crisis rages on with little support from local government. In 2017, she helped found the neighborhood outreach program SELAH, which operates access centers providing food, showers, clothes, case management and other resources to Angelenos experiencing homelessness. Her campaign’s housing platform is organized around providing social services, rent relief, and affordable housing—all programs that should seem common-sense, but are a contrast with the L.A. City Council’s less-than-compassionate approach toward the city’s homelessness crisis.
The race between Raman and Ryu has become increasingly thorny recently, with Ryu accusing Raman of taking donations from corporations and individuals tied to real estate development or fossil fuels. In a sign of her fluency with younger voters, Raman responded in a Twitter thread:
As you probably know, we’ve never accepted any donations from corporations — or individuals tied to real estate development or fossil fuels.
We haven’t benefited from independent expenditures by PACs either — until last week. And I wanted to be transparent about this. (thread)
— Nithya Raman (@nithyavraman) October 22, 2020
When I ask ask about the recent donation dustup with Ryu, Raman avoids getting too personal; instead, she pivots to her opponent’s connection to police unions and this summer’s wave of protests for racial justice. “I think people became interested in our campaign because they started making connections between continued police brutality here in Los Angeles and the power of the city’s police unions here in LA,” says Raman, adding, “That’s one of the many vested interests that have been dominating City Hall politics for for so long. My opponent has been funded—directly and through significant PAC spending—by the police union, which sent out mailers both in the primary and in the general that made it quite clear that he’s their candidate. So I think those lines have become really stark.”
Detractors frequently point to Raman’s celebrity connections; she was formerly the director of the Time’s Up entertainment division, and her campaign has mobilized a number of volunteers from TV and film backgrounds. (Raman’s husband, Vali Chandrasekaran, is an executive producer on Modern Family, and famous figures including Tina Fey, Busy Philipps and Natalie Portman have endorsed her; for his part, though, Ryu has received support donations from studio and agency executives including Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel.)
Raman’s run comes as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib—”the squad”—are helping to reframe notions of what a politician can or should look like. Raman’s motivations for seeking elected office are political, of course—she sees Trump’s 2016 election as helping to foster a “national climate that has been disempowering for so many reasons”—but they are also personal, and borne out of a deep love for Los Angeles’s vibrantly diverse population.
“My husband and I are both South Asian, and we both grew up in environments where we were often the only—or one of the few—people of color in our schools,” recalls Raman, adding, “I love that my children will grow up never feeling unwelcome here, or like they’re not Angelenos because of the color of their skin or because of their origins.”
“I feel a sense of power that I didn’t have in in America before,” says Raman of her run. “Of course, a win would deepen that for so many reasons. But even as a candidate, seeing how many young women of color, how many mothers, have said to me specifically, ‘We see ourselves reflected in you’—that has been so moving and powerful.”
Whether Raman wins or not, her presence has already been deeply felt in one of the country’s largest municipal governments; that a progressive, nontraditional candidate like Raman could come within a few points of winning the March primary speaks volumes about the power of grassroots, issue-focused activism in taking on the City Hall establishment. L.A. Magazine recently called the race between Raman and Ryu “a glimpse at the future of L.A. politics,” and it’s possible Raman’s campaign will inspire other Angelenos—women of color in particular—to address the problems they see at work in their own communities.