Nithya Raman Aims to Shake It up on LA’s City Council
Plus, her plans for Sherman Oaks.
Written byAnne M. Russell
Photographed byMichael Becker
“Nithya Raman doesn’t look like a politician.” A couple decades ago, that’s how this profile might have begun. Today, though, that statement is the kind of exclusionary (even if well-meaning) stereotype Raman has often battled. She grappled with it during her year as executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment and again now as one of only three female members of the 15-person Los Angeles City Council.
Raman’s city council win in November 2020 during the height of the pandemic was a shock to the establishment. A political neophyte, Raman beat out fellow Democrat David Ryu, marking the first time in 17 years a city council incumbent lost a seat. And she’s the first woman ever to represent Council District 4, which covers the Valley neighborhoods of Cahuenga Pass, Sherman Oaks and Toluca Lake, as well as Silver Lake, where Raman lives with her husband and 5-year-old fraternal twins Karna and Kaveri.
“I do feel like people are really frustrated, and honestly, I share that frustration,” she says. “That’s what led me to run for office. I feel like we have already made headway on some of the more intractable challenges in a short amount of time.”
The Harvard-educated, Boston-raised Raman (B.S. political science, ’03), whose family emigrated to the United States from the tropical coastal state of Kerala, India, when she was 6, is enthralled by big, sprawling megalopolises. “I love cities,” she says. “I studied cities, I deeply care about cities. What gets me up in the morning is local issues and working on local issues.”
After college, she produced research reports for various nonprofit groups fighting poverty in India. One of her more memorable projects was for Amnesty International. It examined the ongoing disastrous impact of Union Carbide’s 1984 plant explosion and gas leak on the poor in Bhopal. That work prompted her to seek a master’s degree in urban planning from MIT, after which she returned to India to do further anti-poverty research in the slums of Delhi and Chennai.
In 2013, she joined her husband, television comedy writer Vali Chandrasekaran (My Name is Earl, 30 Rock, Modern Family), in LA. Her first brush with local government came when she produced a report on housing issues for the city administrative officer. Then, in 2017, Raman helped found SELAH, a nonprofit group providing services to the unhoused in Silver Lake and the surrounding areas. Three years later, she took on an even bigger challenge—running for public office. She resigned her Time’s Up job and began to teach herself how to campaign, enlisting both her husband and father as “ambassadors” to canvas, phone bank, and table at events. She also rallied celebrity support from district constituents: actors Natalie Portman and Busy Phillips, both of whom have huge social media followings.
When it comes to the Valley, Raman is focused on improving the affordable-housing situation and by extension, reducing homelessness. Both the north and south Sherman Oaks community plans are currently up for review and Raman sees this as an opportunity to create change. “We want to act as the bridge between the planning department and residents to make sure people have their voices heard,” she says. “We’re talking to different community partners to see how we can use this as an opportunity to find places for affordable housing in the community that are right along the major boulevards.”
She has already hosted a backyard-tree giveaway at the Sherman Oaks farmers market and a food distribution event at Fashion Square. She is also working with the Sherman Oaks chamber of commerce to help small local businesses and restaurants get back on their feet, post-pandemic, by speeding up permitting and continuing the al fresco dining waivers.
Since Raman’s win, State Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Glendale resident who represents California’s 43rd District, has worked closely with her. Raman considers Friedman to be a mentor, saying, “She’s been a partner for shared priorities. She really cares about affordable housing; she cares about environmental protections, safer streets, water conservation.”
Friedman, in turn, praises Raman for her focus. “I have found Councilmember Raman to be extremely thoughtful and dedicated,” the Assemblymember says, adding “I deeply appreciate her as a partner and colleague.”
This summer Raman turned 40. For her, it was a moment of contemplation. “I was reflecting on my life and I thought how lucky I am to be doing this work. I feel incredibly humbled and privileged to be in this role.”
Her enthusiasm for her new job, however, hasn’t prevented her from getting swept up in the recall fever tsunami. Like Governor Gavin Newson, LA County District Attorney George Gascon, and fellow councilmember Mike Bonin, Raman is on notice about a pending effort to remove her from office. Leading the recall charge is Los Feliz Ledger founder and publisher Allison Cohen, representing that neighborhood’s frustration over a homeless encampment that sheltered gang members. In spite of impassioned pleas to Raman’s office from neighbors, the site—since removed—remained entrenched on Berendo Street for months. “There’s a distain for her constituents. It’s a dereliction of duty,” says Cohen, who derisively calls Raman “LAOC,” a reference to Raman’s fellow Democratic Socialist, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
Raman’s response to the recall effort is muted. “I do feel like people are really frustrated, and honestly, I share that frustration,” she says. “That’s what led me to run for office. I feel like we have already made headway on some of the more intractable challenges (i.e., homelessness, housing costs) in a short amount of time.” As far as mounting a counteroffensive against the recall goes, she says, “We haven’t done any fundraising yet. I suppose I will if I need to, but as of now it feels like what I need to do is to do the work. I just got here.”