Hispanics Lament Chu Victory

Posted May 20, 2009 at 6:36pm

Latino lawmakers were reeling Wednesday after an Asian-American candidate won a special election primary in a majority-Hispanic district in California.

Judy Chu (D), the vice chairwoman of the California State Board of Equalization, took 32 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s all-party primary to replace former Rep. Hilda Solis (D), and she is now the overwhelming favorite to win the July 14 special election. Her closest rival, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D), won 23 percent. Emanuel Pleitez (D), a 26-year-old financial analyst who waged an aggressive grass-roots campaign, took 14 percent.

Chu’s win in the heavily Latino district was a blow to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which endorsed Cedillo and hoped to preserve the number of House seats held by Latinos. It could also have major implications for the next round of Congressional redistricting in the Golden State.

CHC leaders chalked up the loss to poor organization among Latinos in the Los Angeles-area district.

“It’s a matter of connecting. It’s a matter of organizing,— CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said. “Of course we are concerned. We need to increase Latino representation.—

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a former CHC chairman, said he felt “sucker punched— by Chu’s victory and lamented that the Latino community didn’t rally behind one candidate.

“Judy Chu didn’t beat us. The only reason she won is because there was a split in the Hispanic vote. Had there not been two Hispanic members running, we would have won that seat,— Baca said.

Baca criticized Pleitez for not getting behind Cedillo — something that Baca said he spent two hours trying to persuade him to do.

“He’s a spoiler,— Baca said. “To have two Hispanics get into the race when it’s critical for us to win a seat makes it very difficult. … Now, basically among many [state] legislators, [Pleitez is] going to be blackballed because they’re not going to support him— in other races.

Other CHC Members expressed disappointment over low voter turnout among Hispanics in the largely working-class district east of Los Angeles. The district’s population is about 62 percent Latino, and at least half of the registered voters are Latino.

As Tuesday’s special primary approached, Cedillo strategists privately acknowledged that higher voter turnout districtwide would aid their candidate, because it would mean that more Hispanics were going to the polls. The turnout was estimated at about 20 percent.

The fact that Latinos are losing a House seat “is not a reflection on Ms. Chu. It’s how do we motivate participation from people in these kinds of districts?— Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) said.

“At the end of the day, the voters made a decision. … If your choice is not to vote, that’s your choice. If your choice is to get behind a candidate and help, great,— House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) said many people “expected a Latino to represent— the district because of its large Hispanic base, but didn’t work together to make it happen. She expressed doubts about Chu’s ability to reach out to Latinos.

To date, Chu has wooed Hispanics “only to go after the endorsements,— Napolitano said.

But many political professionals attributed Chu’s victory to her personal ties in the district and the skillful campaign she ran. While it will take a while to fully crunch the numbers, it’s apparent that Chu won a broad cross-section of support — even among Latino voters.

“This is clearly a lady whose roots in the district ran deep,— said a Democratic consultant who worked for one of Chu’s opponents. “The fact that she wasn’t Hispanic was totally irrelevant.—

Although the CHC endorsed Cedillo, Chu had the support of several prominent Hispanics, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. Several members of Solis’ family also backed Chu.

Sanchez said the main reason she didn’t support Cedillo is because, unlike Chu, he isn’t from the 32nd district.

“For everybody saying that it’s a Hispanic seat and Hispanics should vote for Hispanics, well no. Hispanics should vote for the person that’s best going to represent them. In this particular case, they believed it was going to be Judy Chu,— Sanchez said.

Still, Sanchez said she was “sad— that there wasn’t a solid Hispanic candidate from the area who entered the race. Had Cedillo won, “he would have made an OK Representative,— Sanchez said.

The problem is that “Cedillo was not a known quantity in that community,— Sanchez added. “And if you don’t do your homework and you don’t have someone ready to go, then you’re going to lose that seat to somebody who’s better prepared for it.—

Chu certainly seemed well-prepared for battle. She enjoyed the support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which provided critical ground troops, and the California Democratic Party.

A Congressional seat is a valuable commodity, and the fact that Chu is poised to replace Solis in July is significant not just for the CHC but for Hispanics in Southern California.

“In substance, the difference is absolutely nothing — in terms of policy, she will behave almost exactly like Cedillo or any other Democratic candidate would have behaved,— said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “Symbolically, though, it’s huge.—

Chu’s victory will probably even have implications for Congressional redistricting in the Golden State.

Many Hispanic leaders in Southern California felt they were shortchanged out of a majority-Hispanic seat during the last round of redistricting following the 2000 Census.

With Solis’ old seat giving way to Chu, there are now four Hispanic Members representing districts in Los Angeles County: Becerra, Napolitano, Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) and Linda Sánchez (D). Including the 32nd district, 10 additional districts in Los Angeles County have Hispanic populations of 25 percent or greater — meaning there could be intense pressure on mapmakers to design more districts that will be predisposed to elect Hispanic Members at a time when California could lose one of its 53 House seats.

While CHC members were wringing their hands over Chu’s victory, their Asian-American counterparts were celebrating.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said Hispanic voters chose Chu over Cedillo because she was the best candidate.

“It’s not a Hispanic seat,— Honda said. “You’ve got a lot of Asians there that are very influential, too. People have choices, and Hispanics chose her over a whole slew of other Hispanics. What it tells me is that voters are mature.—

Honda noted that he didn’t endorse anyone during the campaign because of his role as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But asked if he was pleased with Chu’s win, Honda said, “Uh, yeah!—

Alexander Comisar contributed to this report.