Ethnic Divisions Define Next Week’s California Special Election

Posted May 13, 2009 at 6:13pm

Next week’s special election to replace former Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) has devolved into a good old-fashioned street brawl, with candidates trading charges through the mail and the outcome likely to be determined by who has the most committed ground troops.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D) and state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Judy Chu (D) remain the frontrunners in the May 19 race, but there are so many wildcards that “I don’t think anyone’s laying any money,— said Victor Griego, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant who is not working for any of the candidates.

Both Chu and Cedillo are well-known local figures who served together in the state Assembly. Both are reliable, pro-labor liberals who have solid records of outreach to the immigrant communities they represent. And now, each is trying to tear the other down through a series of increasingly strident mailers.

The question, in an ethnically diverse, constantly changing district, is whether either candidate will make overt racially-charged appeals to voters in the final days of the campaign.

Tuesday’s vote will probably be a preliminary — but decisive — step toward replacing Solis, who became secretary of Labor earlier this year. Eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian will appear on the ballot together, and if no one tops 50 percent of the vote, the top vote-getters from each party will advance to a final round of voting on July 14. The Democrats are overwhelmingly favored to hold the seat in a district that runs east from Los Angeles into working-class enclaves.

No public polling has been released in the race, and only Chu, the best-funded candidate, has bothered to pay for surveys.

“Who do you poll?— asked a California state legislator who is closely watching the contest.

With turnout expected to be no greater than 25 percent — a figure that’s actually higher than most recent Golden State Congressional specials, but is being augmented by a statewide special election on budget questions Tuesday — anything can happen. Beyond ground game, ethnicity and shifting political alliances will be key. A Democrat may only need 16,000 votes to lead the field.

“It’s very close and everybody’s trying to figure out who the spoilers are,— Griego said.

Hispanics make up about half the electorate (Asian-Americans are roughly 15 percent), so Cedillo may have the advantage on paper. But that probably makes 26-year-old Emanuel Pleitez (D) the leading potential spoiler.

Pleitez, an investment banker who served on the Treasury Department transition team for President Barack Obama, insists he’s anything but a spoiler. With dozens of youthful volunteers and by harnessing the power of myriad Internet social networks, Pleitez is confident he will upset the two established politicians in the race.

“People are ready for new leadership,— Pleitez said in an interview this week. “All they know is they have 10 mailers [from Cedillo and Chu] attacking each other. And they know they have Sacramento ties. Gil Cedillo and Judy Chu are nice people, but they’re tied to an institution that’s incredibly unpopular.—

Cedillo earlier this week mailed a flier to voters attacking Pleitez — a sign to local political professionals that he is worried about Pleitez cutting into his Latino base. The mailer included an old photo that had been posted on Facebook of Pleitez, wearing a suit at a party, and said Pleitez was better equipped for the movie “Animal House— than for Congress.

“In a special election, you worry about everyone,— said a consultant working for Cedillo.

Half the candidates on the ballot have Hispanic surnames, so Pleitez might not be the only opponent Cedillo needs to fret about when it comes to siphoning votes from his base.

But Chu has ballot worries of her own. Also running is Betty Chu (R), a Monterey Park city councilwoman — from the same town where Judy Chu once served as mayor.

Still, Judy Chu has institutional advantages in the contest. She has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

“Labor’s really the only group out there that can mobilize thousands of voters in a low turnout election,— said Parke Skelton, a consultant working for Chu.

Chu also has a history of attracting voters of all ethnicities, and that’s reflected in some of the endorsements she’s picked up. Her backers include most of Solis’ family (though the Labor secretary is staying neutral), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with the late Cesar Chavez.

Skelton predicted that the Asian vote will be unusually high. The Chu campaign has calculated that Asians make up about 29 percent of the 12,000 voters who had cast absentee ballots as of Wednesday, and Asian-American business leaders helped Chu raise just short of $1 million as of April 29.

Even without the labor federation endorsement, Cedillo, a former union organizer, has picked up some union support, and Derek Humphrey, his campaign manager, predicted the campaign would have “one of the most aggressive grass-roots [get out the vote] operations in Los Angeles County history.—

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has thrown its weight behind Cedillo, and many Los Angeles political observers believe that the higher the turnout gets, the better it is for Cedillo, because it means more Latinos going to the polls. Cedillo raised more than $700,000 through April 29.

But voters will also be weighing the negative messages that the top candidates are putting out about each other. Chu’s campaign has seized on media reports that Cedillo used state campaign funds for personal travel. Cedillo has accused Chu of voting for tax breaks on the Board of Equalization that benefited her political donors.

Chu’s campaign believes Cedillo made a subtle appeal to Hispanic voters when he sent out a mailer recently tying Chu to shady Chinese businessmen. But will more blatant appeals to ethnic pride follow?

Griego said it is the white vote that may matter most. And he said that if Cedillo winds up winning, it will be as much a sign that the district voted along tribal lines as anything the Cedillo campaign did right.

“There’s a theory that campaigns matter,— Griego said. “This may be a case where campaigns don’t matter.—