Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon finally claimed the Democratic nomination for a San Fernando Valley state Senate seat Tuesday, in the closest balloting for a California legislative race in 59 years. He edged out former Assemblyman Richard Katz by just 31 votes.
It was a noteworthy demonstration of Latino political power in an area that had once been predominantly Anglo.
But Katz refused to concede after a two-week count of ballots in the June 2 primary, saying he will probably call for a recount.
Election officials doubted that a recount would change the outcome of a race that was marred by allegations of racism and charges of misrepresentation in campaign literature.
"I've never seen any recount pick up 31 votes," said county Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack, a 17-year veteran whose office tallied the votes and would conduct any recount. "Usually, the recount will only pick up a few votes."
Alarcon's apparent victory was announced after the last 237 write-in ballots were counted. At the end, Alarcon had 38,577 votes or 40.91%, compared to Katz with 38,546 or 40.87%, a difference of only 0.04%, according to election officials.
"This should be the final on the Katz-Alarcon race," McCormack said.
The results are a testament to the surging influence of Latino voters in the Valley. They played a key role five years ago in electing Alarcon, making him the Valley's first Latino city councilman. Two years ago, Latino voters came out in force to elect Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) as the Valley's first Latino assemblyman.
If Alarcon goes on to win the November election against Republican Ollie McCaulley and Libertarian Linda Starr, he will be the Valley's first Latino state senator. The district has a heavy Democratic edge in voter registration.
Alarcon, who was in Puerto Rico for a National League of Cities meeting Tuesday, said he accepted the latest tally as confirmation of his victory.
"I'm moving forward with my campaign," he said. "I'm accepting the decision of the plurality of the people of the 20th District that I'm the candidate for the Democratic Party."
He acknowledged that Latino voters played a role in his victory but said he won by urging all voters to send a fresh face to Sacramento.
"What I said throughout the campaign was that people wanted a change," he said. "They did not want entrenched politicians."
Katz was in the Assembly for 16 years before being forced out in 1996 by term limits. He and Alarcon were vying for a Senate seat held by Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), who is also being forced out by term limits.
Speculation was already rampant in City Hall on Tuesday about the succession. If Alarcon wins in November, he would have to vacate his City Council post in January with about half of his four-year term remaining. In that event, City Council President John Ferraro said, he probably would appoint a caretaker to watch over the district until a new representative is chosen in a special election next April.
Cardenas, who represents the area in the Assembly, would not rule out the possibility of leaving his Assembly post to run for City Council, said an aide, Jose Cornejo.
Another potential contender is Marcos Castaneda, a former Alarcon aide who was elected last year to the city's charter reform panel. He said Tuesday that he would seriously consider running for Alarcon's post.
Katz refused to speculate on his future, except to say he still has faith that a recount can give him a victory.
He cited a recount in 1980 in San Joaquin that turned a 67-vote deficit for Assembly candidate Patrick Johnston into a 25-vote victory.
"I take comfort in knowing that in that Assembly district, 92 votes turned around," Katz said.
Before he can request a recount, Katz said, he must consider how he will raise the county's estimated $40,000 in costs and another $40,000 for lawyers and experts. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) has offered to pay some of the costs of a recount from Senate Democratic political funds. He had made the offer earlier to both men.
"We are going to look at all our options and raise the money for the recount and consider our options," Katz said.
The only recent local example that McCormack could recall of a recount changing the outcome of a race was in 1993, when Michael Karlin had a one-vote lead over Jo Ann Koplin in the race for a seat on the Beverly Hills school board. After the recount, Koplin was declared the winner by four votes.
Tim Downs, a Washington attorney and election expert who worked with Johnston in San Joaquin, said it would take the discovery of a substantial human or mechanical error to change the outcome of the Katz-Alarcon race.
"You would have to find a bundle of ballots that was accidentally run through twice or have a unique error to result in a large significant number of votes being affected," he said.
But Downs said he understands why Katz is calling for a recount.
"It's so tight that a candidate feels obligated to his supporters," he said.
Katz continued to complain about the campaign tactics employed by Alarcon's most influential ally, state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles). He cited a campaign mailer that Polanco sent on Alarcon's behalf in the final days of the campaign that suggested Katz had some involvement in a 1988 incident in Orange County in which poll guards were used to frighten away immigrant voters.
"Until Alarcon repudiates the race-bating that Richard Polanco did on his behalf, I don't have anything to say to Alarcon," Katz said.
Polanco also contributed nearly $200,000 to Alarcon's campaign in the week before the election.
"Polanco's $200,000 and that mailing made a difference," Katz said.