Katz Is Given Edge as Bernardi Successor in Mostly Latino District

Times Staff Writer

City Councilman Ernani Bernardi's northeast San Fernando Valley district is now mostly Latino. But the leading candidate to succeed Bernardi, who may give up his seat in 1989, is not Latino but young, ambitious Assemblyman Richard Katz.

Bernardi, dean of the council with 26 years of service, told The Times that he is considering giving up his seat to spend more time with his ailing wife. If her health improves, he said, he still might relinquish the position in 1989 to launch a long-shot campaign for mayor.

Whenever Bernardi, 76, vacates his seat, Katz is considered the front-runner to succeed him.

That may come as a surprise to those who followed the bruising council redistricting in late 1986. Bernardi's 7th District was radically redrawn as part of an effort to increase Latino political representation on the council.

The council consolidated the northeast Valley's fast-growing Latino neighborhoods, previously split between two council districts, into one new district represented by Bernardi.

The result was a district projected to be 69% Latino by the 1989 council election, according to a study conducted for The Times by Caltech political science professor Bruce E. Cain. Only two of the 14 other council districts have a higher Latino population, and both are represented by Latino council members, Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina.

But Latinos still have a long way to go to win Bernardi's seat simply on the strength of their numbers, said Cain, who also served as the council's chief redistricting consultant. A major reason is that less than one-fourth of the Latinos in the district are registered to vote. Many are not citizens or are under voting age.

Also, Valley Latinos are only beginning to organize politically.

As a result, Katz, a Democrat who has represented the northeast Valley for seven years in the Assembly, is in a good position to win the seat when it is vacated by Bernardi.

Katz, 37, declined to talk about a possible 1989 council race, saying that his immediate political concern is winning reelection in 1988.

Those close to Katz, however, say he is interested in the city office because it offers higher visibility for an ambitious politician than does the Legislature.

A move from Sacramento to City Hall is not unprecedented. Alatorre and Molina left the Assembly to join the council.

Whether Bernardi or Katz runs for the council in 1989, a number of Latinos are considering campaigns for the seat. They include:

Al Avila, a former aide to the late Councilman Howard Finn, who represented the northeast Valley before Bernardi. Avila is considered one of the stronger potential Latino candidates because of his ties to the fund-raising and political network of his current boss, Alatorre.

Jess Margarito, a councilman from the small city of San Fernando. He would have to move into the district to run for the seat.

Irene Tovar, former chairwoman of the Hispanic Caucus of the state Democratic Party.

Jose Galvan, newly elected chairman of the Valley chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn. He ran for the council in 1981 in the northeast Valley's old 1st District, finishing seventh in a field of nine candidates with 4.4% of the vote.

Ray Magana, an attorney and former statewide officeholder of the Mexican-American Political Assn.

These and other Latinos are expected to stand a better chance of winning the council seat in the 1990s and beyond.

"The numbers are there," Alatorre said. "The question is: How many of the numbers are going to be eligible to vote? That is the ultimate key to the growing political influence of Hispanics in that area."

No Reelection Problem

As for Bernardi, he is not expected to have any problem if he seeks reelection, despite a number of stands that could have riled his new Latino constituents. He opposed a resolution declaring Los Angeles a sanctuary for refugees from Central America. Last year, Bernardi refused to join a council majority when it voted to oppose the "English-only" measure on the state ballot--an unpopular measure in the Latino community.

However, Bernardi has worked hard to win over his new constituents, who seem to like his scrappy political style, his accessibility and his efforts to rid the community of crime and blight.

"Ernie has populist appeal," said former Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, a red-haired Irishman who withstood Latino challenges in a heavily Latino district on Los Angeles' Eastside. "His attitude is one that reads well with working-class people, whether they're Anglo or Hispanic."

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