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Latino Assembly Hopeful Seeks to Defy Tradition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Cardenas, owner of an east San Fernando Valley-based real estate agency, seems at first glance an unlikely candidate to make local political history.

The 33-year-old Mission Hills resident, an engineer by training, is strictly a political novice.

Yet Cardenas is hard at work to become the first Latino elected to a state legislative office from the San Fernando Valley. And he is receiving considerable support in his effort.

Cardenas is careful to say, however, that his is not a traditional Latino candidacy as he runs for the 39th Assembly District seat, now held by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), a victim of term limits.

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“This is not a Latino thing,” Cardenas said. “We’re going to be targeting the entire district, not just Latinos.”

And that would be politically smart, for the 39th Assembly District, which runs from Sylmar south to Sun Valley and includes Pacoima, Lake View Terrace and the city of San Fernando, is in an area where the Latino community is large and growing but has not reached its political majority, in numbers or sophistication.

“This is not East L.A. yet,” said Tom Waldman, press secretary to one of the East Valley’s most formidable political figures, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). “There’s still a sizable Anglo vote here, and it would be wise for Latinos to put up a candidate who appeals to the mainstream and doesn’t appear to be [a Latino] activist.”

The numbers tell the story of the disparity between population and power: While composing two-thirds of the district’s population, Latinos probably will make up only a third of the Democrats registered to vote in the March 26 primary. In addition, Cardenas will face two, if not three, well-financed and active white candidates: former state Assemblyman Jim Keysor, veteran legislative aide Jim Dantona and attorney Valerie Salkin.

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Finally, if recent voting history is repeated, Latino turnout in the Democratic primary can be expected to be only about 25%.

Still, Latino empowerment is no pipe dream in the 39th Assembly District.

Richard Alarcon, who learned how to build a multiethnic political coalition as an aide to former Mayor Tom Bradley, demonstrated that in 1993 by winning election, albeit by a razor-thin margin, to an East Valley-based Los Angeles City Council seat against a politically savvy white candidate. Alarcon’s seat is wholly contained within the 39th Assembly District.

“Can a Latino win? It’s certainly in the realm of achievability,” Alarcon said recently.

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To a large extent, the district’s demographic circumstances were set in 1992 by a court-drafted reapportionment plan. That plan closely followed the recommendations of Latino activists and drew new boundaries for the 39th that consolidated Valley Latino communities.

But even so, it was not expected to become a district dominated by Latinos in the near term. “This was a Latino-influenced district, not a Latino-majority one,” said Nancy Ramirez, a voting-rights attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a major player in the 1992 reapportionment battles.

Past elections also suggest potential pitfalls for a Latino candidate. Proposition 187, the measure to deny illegal immigrants many basic government services, was approved in 1994 by 52% of voters in the 39th. Earlier this year, candidate Lucia Rivera was unable to win election to a school board seat held by Latinos since the 1980s after it was reapportioned in 1992 to include a large chunk of the East Valley. She was defeated by David Tokofsky.

Waldman and others agree that in Cardenas, Latinos may have found someone with potential as a crossover candidate. For example, Cardenas is a businessman, the owner of Metro Realty, who got an engineering degree from UC Santa Barbara and has no obvious ties to the Latino political culture. He is also a member of the huge, largely white Church on the Way congregation in Van Nuys.

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“A lot of people in traditional Latino political circles don’t know me,” Cardenas acknowledged recently, noting also that in college he joined engineering societies, not campus Latino political groups. “Some think I’m too Latino, but others say I’m not Latino enough.”

In fact, one Latino activist who is an officer with the Mexican American Political Assn. recently complained that Cardenas lacks the curriculum vitae to run for office. “He’s got no background in politics,” the activist said. “He’s a businessman. Where’s he been?”

Yet Cardenas’ very lack of a political past is what may give him the kind of political crossover potential that has helped candidates like Tom Bradley, a notable Los Angeles example, win election in a city with less than a 20% African American population.

Conveying a decidedly non-ethnic message, Cardenas’ early political literature hails the candidate as an “independent businessman . . . not a career politician” who shares voters’ “Valley values” of commitment to “safer neighborhoods, local control of schools and personal responsibility.”

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When the mailer gets specific, it shows Cardenas subscribing to an easy canon of beliefs, including the need to close the Lopez Canyon Landfill and to stop construction of an oil pipeline through a district that can recall an explosion and fire during the Northridge earthquake.

“Unless I’m putting on a sham, I’m not your typical Latino politician,” Cardenas said recently. “Just look at my background, my business, my philosophy.”

Yet, Cardenas is inevitably the Latino candidate in the 39th, if for no other reason than he is the only Latino actively raising money and walking precincts.

But there are other hallmarks as well. It is Cardenas, albeit a political newcomer, who has won the backing of the Latino Legislative Caucus, a group of Latino state lawmakers headed by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles).

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Although the caucus has occasionally backed non-Latinos, it has as one of its goals the election of Latinos to the state Assembly and Senate, said Polanco press aide Bill Mabie.

As a demonstration of what such support can mean, Polanco recently hosted and paid for a small fund-raiser for Cardenas at the Olvera Street restaurant of Andy Camacho, a longtime friend of Polanco and of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre.

Caucus members will use their incumbent-based connections and longtime political ties to help Cardenas raise money and attract volunteers, Mabie said.

Likewise, it also is apparent that--barring some catastrophe--Alarcon will endorse Cardenas.

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“I’m not going to endorse until the deadline [for persons to declare their candidacy] closes,” Alarcon said. “But Tony is the only local candidate so far, the only one raised and born in the district, who has an established business here. That’s what I’m telling anyone who asks.”

Also, in an apparent effort to avoid fragmenting the Latino vote, other potential Latino candidates have been encouraged not to run by Latino Legislative Caucus members, according to sources familiar with this internal politicking. “Absolutely, that’s happening,” said one high-ranking official who asked that he not be named.

When Fred Flores, an aide to congressman Berman, was looking at running for the Katz seat, Berman got a call from Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park), said Berman aide Waldman.

“Yeah, there was some pressure brought to bear,” Waldman said. “Escutia’s message to [Berman] was that the caucus had decided on Cardenas and that this was a Latino district, and let’s all get behind one Latino.”

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Eventually, Flores--whom Berman was prepared to endorse--decided the money and resources weren’t available for him to make a viable bid and he dropped out of the running, Waldman said.

Raul Godinez, a San Fernando city councilman, is another who explored the race, then bowed out. Godinez, who is endorsing Cardenas, denied he was asked by the Polanco forces to defer to Cardenas, but others say Godinez had told them he was petitioned to drop his bid in the name of Latino unity.

Mabie and Cardenas said they were unaware of so-called unity calls being made by caucus members to other potential Latino candidates in the race.

Clearly, Latino unity can be part of a winning strategy. With a private poll in the district showing that Latino voters are twice as likely to vote for a Spanish-surnamed candidate, it is clear that a large block of the electorate is already disposed to vote for Cardenas.

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And Latino unity coupled with some crossover votes could be enough in a four-candidate primary race--where the victor needs only a plurality to win--to put Cardenas over the top.

“All you may need in this race is about 30% of the vote,” said one veteran Latino political strategist, who asked that he not be named.

“If you can get most of the Latino vote and about a 10% crossover from African Americans and whites, that should do it.”

Ultimately, it is the Democratic primary that will tell the story about who succeeds Katz. In this heavily Democratic district, the primary victor can be expected to easily win the general election in November, 1996, against whomever the Republicans put into the field.

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