Austin, Thrash-Ntuk lead early in tight 8th District City Council race

It’s looking more likely that incumbent Long Beach City Councilman Al Austin and challenger Tunua Thrash-Ntuk are headed to a November runoff election to determine the future leadership of the city’s 8th District.

As results came in Tuesday night, Austin led early, debuting with over 40% of the initial vote tallies just before 9 p.m. His lead decreased slightly as the night rolled on, but he stayed comfortably in front as challengers Juan Ovalle and Thrash-Ntuk took turns jumping over each other for much of the night.

However, by the morning Thrash-Ntuk had put significant distance between herself and Ovalle. And the gap between her and Austin closed dramatically. Just 79 votes separated them early Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Clerk said that the county did not know how many outstanding votes were still left to be counted but that its next update, scheduled for Wednesday between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., could shed more light.

“I’m very optimistic,” Thrash-Ntuk said. “The kinds of conversations I’ve been having over the past few weeks … people are interested in change. People are excited about me and my background and the things that I’m talking about.”

The positions of all three candidates could change as vote tallies continue to trickle in. It’s unclear how many ballots remain to be counted or how long it will take to get a firm picture of the results under Los Angeles County’s new voting system.

Ntuk-Thrash led the field in fundraising with over $156,000 in contributions in addition to being backed by a committee that raised $125,000 from three large union contributions. She remained calm through the early results noting that her campaign had surmised she’d do better with voters at the polls rather than those voting by mail who might skip over her because of her lack of name recognition.

That calculus played out during the early hours of Wednesday as Thrash-Ntuk and Ovalle took turns overtaking each other by just a handful of votes before she opened a more comfortable lead.

“It was pretty obvious to us before today that we were going to need to be in this race until November, so I’ve been focused on ensuring that all the things we’ve done to get us to this point will continue,” she said Tuesday night.

Austin said he made his case to voters on the campaign trail and that he remained confident that he would retain his seat no matter who he faced in the November runoff. However, whether he heads into the runoff in first or second place is now in question as votes continue to be tabulated.

“I knew it was going to be a dogfight for second place,” Austin said Tuesday while still comfortably ahead of both Ovalle and Thrash-Ntuk. “I didn’t expect anything different though. Our numbers looked good throughout our campaign.”

Ovalle’s strong showing on Tuesday night was more of a surprise as he had raised the least amount of money during the campaign cycle being out-fundraised many times over by his two opponents. Ovalle sat in third place Wednesday morning, but only 230 votes separated him from first place in this tightly contested race.

He attributed his strong showing to his message of transparency and accountability, two things he says are lacking in city leadership. Ovalle ran on a platform supported by the Long Beach Reform Coalition.

“People are disappointed with the direction of our city and that’s why they’ve come out and voted for me,” Ovalle said. “The people of this city want change.”

Ovalle was optimistic not only that he’d advance to the runoff, but that he’d win.

As he addressed a packed dining room inside Taboon’s Mediterranean restaurant in Bixby Knolls Tuesday, he asked that his supporters make one promise to him:

“You all here, don’t forget this moment,” Ovalle said. “Because when we win, don’t let me lose my soul.”

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.