California Special On Tap

Array of Interest Groups Likely to Weigh in on Democratic Scramble

Posted April 23, 2007 at 6:11pm

Nearly a dozen Democrats are being mentioned as possible successors to deceased House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) in California’s 37th district, where the strong Democratic bent of the district could lead to an intraparty brawl in the as-yet-uncalled special election.

Among possible candidates are five sitting and two former state legislators, two current municipal officeholders and one well known law enforcement official. Although Democrats Monday still were sifting through the political and legislative impact of Millender-McDonald’s death over the weekend from cancer, the potential for a battle among Democratic interest groups was immediately evident.

EMILY’s List, an abortion-rights group that supports Democratic women, is examining getting involved in electing her replacement.

“We’re definitely looking at the seat,” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Ramona Oliver said. EMILY’s List backed Millender-McDonald in 1996 when she first ran for the Long Beach-area seat in a special election.

The Congressional Black Caucus was unavailable for comment Monday, but it has historically been interested in maintaining its numbers whenever a black Member has left office. The 37th district is a stew of black, Latino, Asian-American and white voters.

The severely gerrymandered Southern California district repeatedly elected Millender-McDonald by wide margins since 1996; her lowest winning percentage was 73 percent of the vote in 2002.

That Democratic tilt is likely to generate a crowded special open primary once Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) sets the date for that contest.

Although there are likely to be various political and ethnic tensions that prompt various interest groups to get involved in the race and promote particular candidates, one analyst predicted that parochial concerns would trump any influence brought to bear by operatives in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

The 37th district includes 80 percent of Long Beach, a port city of more than 400,000 people within Los Angeles County — and 56 percent of the district’s registered voters live in that community.

Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant who is now co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state legislative and Congressional districts, predicted that Long Beach residents’ desire for a Representative who is from their city would eclipse all other considerations, including ethnic concerns.

“Long Beach votes for Long Beach. That factor transcends partisanship and ethnicity,” Hoffenblum said. “The city officials are going to want a Long Beach person. I’ll be surprised if they let anyone from Washington or Sacramento deny them that.”

If that’s the case, state Sens. Alan Lowenthal (D), Jenny Oropeza (D), and state Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D) would have to be considered the frontrunners. Hoffenblum is particularly high on Oropeza, and he said the state Senator’s consultant confirmed to him in an e-mail that she is interested in running.

Oropeza spokesman Ray Sotero, citing the proximity to Millender-McDonald’s death, said Monday that his boss had no comment on her political plans.

“I think this is a day of sadness for all of us in [Millender-McDonald’s] district and certainly for her family,” Oropeza said in a statement.

State law dictates that the governor set the date for the election sometime in the next 14 days, with a runoff of the top candidate in each political party to follow if the winner does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote in the special open primary.

In addition to Lowenthal, Oropeza and Richardson, the 10 Democrats considered viable include state Assemblywoman Karen Bass; state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas; retired state Assemblyman Jerome Horton; former state Sen. Kevin Murray; Port of Long Beach Security Director William Ellis, who is a former Long Beach police chief; Compton City Councilman Isadore Hall III; and Carson Mayor Jim Dear.

Hoffenblum also suggested that former Congressman and current state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D) might make a play for the seat. However, Dymally, who spent a dozen years in Congress and also served as California’s lieutenant governor, is 81 years old.

Hoffenblum also mentioned that Valerie McDonald, Millender-McDonald’s daughter, could be enticed to run.

One Democratic operative based in California noted that Lowenthal’s state Senate district overlaps about 40 percent of the 37th Congressional district, and said his base of support in Long Beach is strong. Lowenthal has been active in the Legislature in trying to reform the redistricting process.

Like Hoffenblum, this operative cited Oropeza as a potentially strong candidate, as her Senate district also partially overlaps the 37th. Her name was beginning to circulate among Democrats on Monday. Oropeza had liver cancer two and a half years ago, but has since been declared cancer-free.

While it is possible that groups like EMILY’s List could be angling for a woman to replace Millender-McDonald and the CBC might prefer a new Member who is black, the district’s increased Latino population could create pressure on Democrats to nominate someone from that ethnic group.

Voter registration statistics show the 37th district is 21.5 percent Latino and at least 25 percent black. If the goal is to satisfy both local, ethnic and gender concerns, Oropeza and Richardson are possibilities.

Each is female and each has a base of support in Long Beach, although Oropeza is Latina and Richardson is black, meaning one ethnic group would have to give in the end.