Challengers unseat longtime incumbents in WeHo election

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By Juliet Bennett Rylah

Contributing Writer

WEST HOLLYWOOD — Two long-serving City Council members were voted out of office Nov. 3, with local voters electing former city employee John Erickson and lawyer and advocate Sepi Shyne, who will become the first queer Iranian-American woman on the City Council.

Out of 11 candidates vying for two open West Hollywood City Council seats, Shyne came in first place with 23.65% of the vote and Erickson came in second with 21.44% of the vote.

Incumbent Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem John Heilman trailed in third place with 18.18%, while the other incumbent, Councilman John Duran, was in fifth place at 9.81%.

These results signal a possible shift for more inclusivity in West Hollywood, with Shyne’s election meaning that the City Council will be majority female for the first time in West Hollywood history.

Shyne and Erickson’s election might also mean that the city could rely less on policies favored by real estate interests. Shyne refused to take donations from such interests throughout her campaign.

“I am incredibly proud of the success of our people-powered campaign,” she said in a statement. “We laid out a broad and progressive vision that protects renters, rejects special interests and reimagines how we invest in our quality of life in West Hollywood.”

Both Heilman and Duran enjoyed long political careers in West Hollywood.

Heilman had served on the City Council since West Hollywood was incorporated in 1984 and was selected by the council as mayor multiple times between 1985 and 2017. Duran has served on the council since 2001.

Duran’s tenure has been recently plagued by controversy. In 2015, his City Council deputy, Ian Owens, said Duran hired him after they met on the hookup app Grindr and then sexually harassed him at work. The city settled a lawsuit filed by Owens for $500,000.

In 2019, Duran stepped down as a board member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and resigned as mayor of West Hollywood after three chorus members accused him of sexual harassment. Duran denied the allegations and said his decision was due to health issues.

In his own post-election statement, Duran said he’s had an “extraordinary” 20 years on the City Council, describing career highlights including the creation of addiction recovery centers, an AIDS monument and West Hollywood Park, as well as work in animal rights legislation and marriage equality.  

We built up the dynamic City of West Hollywood with our imprints. Now, it is time to pass the baton to younger people to build on the foundation we set,” Duran said of himself and Heilman.

Neither Heilman nor Erickson responded to requests for comment.

Erickson was an intern for West Hollywood City Council while completing a Ph.D. in American Religious History at Claremont Graduate University in 2010. He later served as Councilwoman Abbe Land’s deputy, then as the city’s community affairs technician. He is currently the director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

Shyne is a business law attorney, a city business license commissioner and civil rights advocate who lives in West Hollywood with her wife. She’s the first Iranian-American, the first woman of color and only the second queer woman to serve on the council. The first, Valerie Terrigno, was elected in 1984.

As a candidate, Shyne faced a lot of abuse and criticism related to her identity. In an Aug. 6 interview with Fox 11, she talked about numerous racist comments and threats she received through her social media accounts during her campaign.

During a Stonewall Democratic Club panel on Aug. 9 that included Shyne, Heilman, Erickson and candidate Noemi Torres, moderator Alex Mohajer noted that some people refer to West Hollywood as “Boystown” and see it as “a playground for white, gay, cisgender men.”

He asked what had candidates already done to lift up women, transgender people and queer people of color, and what they would do to serve West Hollywood’s most vulnerable constituents.
Every candidate said that the city could be more inclusive, with both Erickson and Heilman both saying they disliked the moniker Boystown. Shyne said that while West Hollywood has done some “great work,” she agreed that it has been “very cis-gendered, male-focused,” and said that bias is reflected in its elected body.

“The focus of a delineation like Boystown and even the nation of recognizing GoGo Appreciation Day, which are all incredibly male-focused, needs to shift. I believe that we need to be more open to women and trans women and make sure that they feel safe, especially our Black trans women,” she said.

Voters also approved a measure that will increase the city’s sales tax three-quarters of a cent.

Measure E was approved by 73.1% of voters. It is expected to provide about $11 million a year to maintain city services.

The two new council members will be sworn in at the regular City Council meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 7.

Juliet Bennett Rylah is a freelance reporter who covers Hollywood and West Hollywood. She can be reached at jbrylah@gmail.com.0