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For City Council Newcomer Ryu, Honeymoon's Over and Voters Want Action

Mary Plummer | November 16, 2015 | 89.3 KPCC

In the world of politics, step one is getting voters to elect you. If you win, step two is working for those same people and keeping them happy.

Freshman City Councilmember David Ryu is among the newly elected officials living that challenge.

In the first of his four-year term, Ryu is figuring out how to regularly engage constituents and meet their demands, not an easy task given the 280,000 residents he represents in a district stretching from the San Fernando Valley to Silver Lake.

On a stroll through a valley park in Sherman Oaks several weeks ago, Ryu talked about things he wants to improve. For one, the soccer fields in this area need turf improvements, he says, as he watched dozens of kids practicing on mostly dirt under the afternoon sun.

Mansionization, the development issue roiling other communities, is also debated here as some homes are torn down to make way for much larger ones, changing the community's character. Ryu wants restrictions on those projects. 

Listening to constituents and making sure he's reaching them involves a long to-do list.

"It’s my responsibility and my job to do whatever it takes, whether it’s through email, whether it's through a website or a hard copy newsletter, or through media," he said. "It’s my job to make sure that their connection that they felt, I mean, I can’t call them everyday ... is somehow still continued." 

Then there's the piece that he'll be held to account on into the next election: following through on campaign promises and solving the myriad of issues that constituents bring to him.

It was different when he was running for office. Ryu took a similar walk through this neighborhood on election day back in May. He knocked on doors and pleaded with people to go out and vote.

"Half the job was telling people you have to vote to make a difference, you have to vote to have your voice heard, you have to vote to get your issues resolved," he said. He even gave rides to voters so they could get to their polling places before closing time.

In the end, he won by about 2,300 votes and became the first Korean American to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.

Ryu partly credits his win over a longtime City Hall operative, Carolyn Ramsay, to his community outreach efforts. He's employing similar strategies to keep connected to those he must now serve.

Ryu is holding office hours for residents and plans to go door-knocking again. Plus, he’s launched a public task force to guide him on how he should spend his discretionary funds, which range from $1.1 million to $1.5 million a year for each council member. 

He is also pursuing campaign finance reform for increased transparency and public involvement. The effort is seen by some as a quixotic effort for a first-term council member. But he has drawn support for it and praise for calling for more deliberate review of the city's $4.5 billion plan to bid on the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Pete Peterson, interim dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, studies how public sector officials interact with the public and said it is harder for politicians to communicate once elected.

"My experience has been that elected officials can be very good communicators about their own platform, but when these issues crop up between elections that demand greater citizen input, it takes the ability to facilitate more of an open-ended conversation about that issue," he said.

At the park, Sherman Oaks resident Maggie McNally was helping her son’s team with soccer practice. McNally is a an active voter, but she didn’t remember Ryu’s name. Still, she wants him to fix the condition of the park fields.

“The big concern that we have here in Sherman Oaks is you can see how horrible this park is," she said. "It's like all dirt, with very, very little scraggly grass. It’s mostly weeds,” she said.

She said she hasn't had any communication from Ryu's office. “I think that it is important for our council people to know what’s going on in the community,” she said. “These are real problems.”

Ryu, of course, knows about the issue, having just walked the park a few minutes earlier and missing McNally and other parents who care about the issue. 

It's illustrative of the challenge Ryu faces as he works to both keep up with what matters to his constituents and ensure they know he's working on their problems.