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1st District Foes Target Key Voters : Election: Candidates must woo conservatives, women and absentees in runoff for county supervisor seat, campaign experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gloria Molina and Art Torres face a dilemma in Los Angeles County’s historic 1st District supervisorial race, because they must appeal to Republicans and conservative Democrats without risking their liberal Democratic strongholds, campaign experts say.

And they must conduct this delicate balancing act while attempting, in the hectic month before the Feb. 19 runoff, to capture a large and significant bloc of women voters, turn out the crucial absentee vote and raise tens of thousands of dollars.

Because absentees made up nearly a quarter of the votes in the primary, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Molina and state Sen. Torres have already launched intense absentee campaigns in their bids to become the first Latino supervisor this century.

“They’re already in the mail,” said Molina press deputy Robert Alaniz, of 70,000 absentee ballots sent by her campaign.

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With only 22% of registered voters casting ballots last Tuesday, Torres and Molina must make sure their Eastside supporters go to the polls again--no easy task with the distraction of the Gulf War and the President’s Day holiday a day before the election.

Torres and Molina, whose records on issues are remarkably similar, prevailed in the primary over Republican Sarah Flores and state Sen. Charles Calderon, a moderate Democrat. Molina won 35% of the vote and Torres 26%.

Molina beat Torres in unincorporated East Los Angeles and the city of Los Angeles, which together have about a third of the 371,000 registered voters in the district. But the rest of the district split among the other candidates--and voters in those areas tend to be moderate to conservative Democrats and Republicans.

The heavily populated region east of Atlantic Boulevard, including Montebello, Monterey Park and Pico Rivera--split among Molina, Torres and Calderon, while Flores trailed. In the San Gabriel Valley, Flores got the most votes, winning La Puente, El Monte and Baldwin Park, but the other candidates were bunched close behind.

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Political experts say Molina and Torres must get one message across to undecided voters in these cities: My opponent is too steeped in Latino politics and Democratic viewpoints to serve everyone, while I can bridge both worlds.

“They’re both going to move to the right” to attract voters, said consultant Joseph Cerrell, who is not involved in the race. “You play it right down the middle.”

But experts differed sharply on whether Molina or Torres will be more effective in promoting themselves as centrists.

Cerrell said Torres may edge Molina in Republican precincts because he said Torres is more likely to win voters who identify with conservative Supervisors Pete Schabarum, Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich.

If he were Torres, Cerrell said, he would meet with Antonovich and Dana to seek their support, saying “Do you want a reasonable, rational, moderate or an extremist--an activist feminist?”

But another veteran Los Angeles political consultant, who is not involved in the race and asked not to be named, suggested that Molina remind Republican and non-Latino voters that she is independent of Democratic and Latino machine politics.

“Molina is almost cantankerously independent,” said the consultant. “Republicans . . . will say: ‘She is not one of us, but she is certainly not one of them.’ ”

Republicans account for about a third of the registered voters in the district. Although Republicans are the single largest bloc of undecided voters, the Los Angeles County Republican Party, which endorsed Flores in the primary, said it will not back either Molina or Torres.

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Experts said gender also could be a key to the outcome of the election, which was ordered last November after a federal judge ruled that the supervisors had discriminated against Latinos in drawing up district boundaries. The newly redrawn 1st District is 71% Latino.

Each candidate has a strong record on issues considered important to women, such as the environment and child care.

Molina’s camp has already appealed to women to make her the first elected female supervisor in Los Angeles County history. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was appointed as supervisor in 1979 but was defeated the next year.

Molina has raised much of her campaign treasury from women’s groups, reports show. Torres enjoys strong support from trade unions, which poured tens of thousands of dollars into his coffers for the primary, helping him raise more than $500,000.

Molina’s volunteers are hitting the streets this weekend, and the two candidates said they took only a few hours’ breather after Tuesday’s primary.

Torres has turned once again to organized labor to help get out his vote.

The county Service Employees International Union, Local 660, sent absentee ballot request forms to 4,000 members in the district within 48 hours after Tuesday’s election, said Sharon Grimpe Correll, general manager of the union.

The ballots were printed before the election with the expectation that Torres would make the runoff.

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The absentee vote is important because only 16% of registered voters actually went to a polling place, while 6% voted by mail. Molina, who was first to send out absentee ballot request forms, attributed her first-place finish partly to absentees.

Both Torres and Molina declined to discuss their strategies for attracting undecided voters. But each camp is poring over voting patterns from last Tuesday to identify the precincts in which they will concentrate their efforts.

Consultants for Torres said they will highlight his endorsements and legislative record during the campaign.

Molina will bring up issues that show she is a fiscal conservative, while Torres is a spender, said her aide, Bond.

Molina will also remind voters about her support for the death penalty and her longtime practice of visiting crime-troubled areas of her district to determine where and how to improve police response.

A longstanding animosity exists between Torres and Molina that dates to 1982, when Torres did not support Molina in her successful race for state Assembly.

“It’s going to be a good one,” Cerrell said of the race. “We’re already down to 3 1/2 weeks. It’s going to be intense because of the timing. Win or lose, they’ll collapse at the end from exhaustion.”

Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this story.


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