By Steve Montgomery
Lost among the euphoria of Culver City’s more liberal factions’ dreams of a new progressive majority on the city council after the April 10 municipal elections was the historic election of Daniel Lee as the city’s first elected African-American city councilman.
Lee, a community organizer who in 2016 came within 143 votes of reaching that momentous goal in April 2016, won in another tight race on April 10, besting Albert Vera Jr. by 212 votes, 3,335 to 3,123.
Alex Fisch won the most votes with 3,819.
“It’s about time,” said Cynthia Gibson of CKG Communications, a marketing, communications and public relations firm in Fox Hills. “We definitely need to see more people with different perspectives and different cultures in elective office.”
Neither Lee nor Marcus Tiggs, an African-American bankruptcy attorney who ran for council in 2016 and this year, chose to focus on the potentially ground-breaking possibilities of their candidacies. But nor did they downplay it.
“I really don’t want someone to vote for me because of that, but if I am elected I think I would feel a sense of responsibility to be a mentor and a role model for others, especially kids who might think, ‘Marcus did it, so maybe I can too,’” Tiggs said during the campaign.
Failed black candidates who ran for city council include attorney Ted Smith in 2002 and former Culver City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Luther Henderson in 2008.
Lee thinks his election is part of a two-fold phenomenon in Culver City: a wave of more progressive voters becoming more active and those voters being open to the prospect of a black candidate. “There has been a lot of messaging about Culver City being a progressive city for the last decade. I think Culver City is becoming more progressive, but progressive voters have not always been showing up to vote in local elections,” the councilman-elect said. “That’s a very important story but the African –American aspect is a larger story.”
As a member of the city Martin Luther King Day Committee in 2014, Lee learned from one of his staunchest supporters, Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells, that Culver City had never had elected a black candidate to the city council.
“I was a little surprised to hear that,” Lee admitted. “There have only been five women elected and that surprised me too.”
While it was not a central tenet of his campaign, Lee said it was important to “talk about why [electing a black candidate to the council] has never happened and what are the reasons why it hasn’t happened?”
After he won, Lee said his supporters were more excited than he. “My first thought was, ‘What do we do now? How do we take everything that we talked about during the campaign and turn it into action?’” he recalled.
Gibson noted the wave of protests and level of activism in local, state and national elections since the election of President Donald Trump and senses that progressive voices are primed to vote in response to a policy they feel are antithetical to them. “[The 2016 election] has really galvanized people to become more actively involved in elections,” she said.
As one of the few renters to sit on the council in recent years, Lee will also bring a different advocacy perspective regarding housing affordability and how Culver City can create more affordable housing.
Lee will join a council on April 30 that is possibly the most diverse in Culver City’s history: Vice Mayor Thomas Small is Filipino-American, Sahli-Wells is bilingual after having lived for years in France and Councilman Gorän Eriksson is a native of Sweden.
Gibson said there is a nationwide trend of more women and minorities running for and being elected to office and that trend has arrived in Culver City. “Voters are starting to look at the content and not just the package that it comes in,” she said. “It’s a wave and it’s washing over Culver City now.”
Gary Walker contributed to this story.