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LA City Council race debate draws raucous crowd, anti-immigrant outburst

The audience erupts during a debate between City Council member Gil Cedillo and challenger Joe Bray-Ali on April 17, 2017.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
The audience erupts during a debate between City Council member Gil Cedillo and challenger Joe Bray-Ali on April 17, 2017.

City Council member Gil Cedillo and challenger Joe Bray-Ali met Monday night in a contentious faceoff for the first of their two required debates ahead of the May 16 general election.

Although the evening focused on housing issues, a jarring moment brought a loud crowd reaction when a member of the audience shouted at Bray-Ali to "go back to India."

The overflow crowd seemed deeply divided over the two candidates who are a study in contrast: Cedillo is a long-time politician seeking his second council term while Bray-Ali is a relative newcomer best known for his work as a cycling activist. 

Cedillo is the only incumbent council member who did not win reelection outright in March. He earned 49.34 percent of the primary election vote and needed 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff. Bray-Ali was the second place candidate with 37.97 percent of the vote.

The two are competing to represent District 1, which takes in communities that include Highland Park, Cypress Park, Westlake and Chinatown.

Both are Democrats, but the debate produced sharp differences and personal jabs that repeatedly brought the crowd to their feet.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above and the main photo for this story do not depict the audience member who shouted the "go back to India" comment but rather shows other moments during the debate.

The "go back to India" comment, which came as the debate wrapped up, brought a swift response from Bray-Ali, who is U.S.-born. His father immigrated to the U.S. from India. Bray-Ali was in the midst of an attack against Cedillo when the outburst occurred. 

"I was born here," Bray-Ali said in response, first in English then repeating the phrase in Spanish. "I'm a child of Los Angeles." 

At least one audience member urged Cedillo to denounce the audience member's comment. But Cedillo, who was seated at table next to Bray-Ali, stayed silent.

It was unclear what details Cedillo heard from the crowd during the incident. Throughout the night the crowd frequently interrupted and shouted over the candidates. A spokeswoman for Cedillo said he did not hear what was said from where he sat and that he “strongly denounces that type of behavior."

A few minutes after the exchange occurred, Cedillo took the stage and talked about his own roots.

"Since we mentioned our family, my father was a not a political consultant extraordinaire who advised the Latino caucus for decades. My father was a mechanic at American Can Company," Cedillo said, adding comments on his own family's background. 

Bray-Ali's father had a lengthy career in politics and previously served as chief of staff to former City Councilman Richard Alarcon.

While much of the night was taken up by attacks on the other, the candidates did stake out differences on housing issues.

On the topic of affordable housing in the Westlake/MacArthur Park area of the city where many residents are low-income, Cedillo pledged to build on current plans to increase housing options.

Cedillo said city efforts have already produced or planned for "580 units of affordable housing right here in the MacArthur Park [area]." 

The councilman also promised new sidewalks around the park and additional stop signs and stop lights in the community.

Bray-Ali challenged Cedillo's affordable housing numbers. "There’s nothing in the pipeline coming forward," he said.

He proposed the city impose fees on vacant land that could ultimately increase low-income housing.

Because both candidates have accepted public campaign funds, they are required to meet in at least one more debate before the election on May 16. Vote by mail has already gotten underway. The deadline to register to vote in the election is May 1. 

This story has been updated.