Surprise: Councilman Cardenas and His 18 Aides Prevail


While all the votes have not yet been counted, it appears that Tony Cardenas has been re-elected to another four-year term on the LA City Council. He’d been opposed by six candidates, and he wasn’t endorsed by the area’s major newspaper. But Cardenas did have one, huge advantage: he was running as an incumbent.

In Los Angeles, members of the City Council are authorized to hire a number of employees to help them with their work. These employees, called Council Aides, are exempt from Civil Service. They’re appointed by the District Council Member, who oversees their work, but who won’t tell anyone what Council Aides really do.

Councilman Cardenas currently employs 18 Aides. They may have been on his team since he was first elected to the Council. And even if they didn’t get directly involved in the re-election effort (an unverified assumption), Cardenas’s Aides did, in fact, give him an unfair advantage over the other candidates on the ballot.

Over the years, Cardenas’s 18 Aides have served the residents of the Sixth Council District. They’ve responded to requests from every community, every neighborhood in the District. They’ve helped individuals and families with various problems, large and small. And they’ve done all that on behalf of the Councilman.

While it may not have been their primary purpose, Cardenas’s Aides helped him build a favorable image in the Sixth District. It inclined the voters to support him, rather than any of his less well-known — but perhaps better qualified — opponents.

To this point, my focus has been on one unfair election in one Council District. But the problem is broader than that. It’s reflected in the outcomes of at least two other elections in Council Districts, where incumbents with virtually no record of significant accomplishments retained their seats.

The truth is that the election of Council Members is inherently unfair. It ensures that any challenger, no matter how well qualified, will run as an under-dog. At the same time, Council elections almost guarantee that any incumbent, no matter how undeserving, will have a huge advantage — his own army of exempt Aides.

Ideally, Council elections in Los Angeles should give all candidates a fair chance to communicate with the electorate. But if the incumbent has 18 Council Aides to help him/her win voter approval, what chance does any challenger really have?

Contact Samuel Sperling at

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