White Voters Could Tip the Scales in High-Stakes Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles' 15th City Council District stretches from Watts to the Port of Los Angeles, but the runoff election to win its seat will probably be decided in the tightknit, isolated, ethnically mixed seaside community of San Pedro.

Each candidate has a roughly equal number of staunch supporters at opposite ends of the district--Janice Hahn's in Watts and the so-called harbor corridor communities, and Hector Cepeda's among labor unions and Latinos in Wilmington and the San Pedro area.

The tiebreakers, their political consultants say, are San Pedro's white middle-class voters whose brightly colored stucco and wood-framed homes with tidy gardens and trimmed olive trees overlook ports that are the gateway for trade with Asia.

The stakes are high.

Hahn's brother, James K. Hahn, is running for mayor, as is Cepeda's former employer, Antonio Villaraigosa. Either combination could mean special access to City Hall for the struggling port communities.

"This is a huge election year for us. Getting a new mayor and new city councilman has everyone in town holding their breath," said San Pedro Chamber of Commerce Director Sean Fitzgerald.

"The No. 1 commodity we're missing is not a mall or a housing development--it's hope," he said. "The kind of hope that leads to investments in local business and infrastructure, and just sweeping the sidewalks every day."

The local secessionist movement was dampened by a recent report that said a breakaway city in the harbor area would not be financially feasible.

But there remains smoldering resentment over what many voters feel is a lack of city services, a City Hall unresponsive to district needs and ongoing tension between the fast-growing port and the neighboring communities of San Pedro and Wilmington.

Hahn and Cepeda have vowed to make the city more responsive and to deal with such "down-home San Pedro" problems as gangs, ailing waterfront businesses, diesel emissions from trucks and ships, and uncovered piles of coke, a petroleum byproduct that winds can blow into surrounding neighborhoods.

Both candidates advocate strengthening neighborhood councils and making the Port of Los Angeles participate more in regional planning to revitalize the waterfront.

And both have been walking precincts and dropping mailers in San Pedro for the seat being vacated by Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who could not seek reelection because of term limits and steps down July 1.

The winner will preside over a district that is home to more than 240,000 people--about 52% of them Latino, 20% white, 15% African American and 6% Asian-Pacific Islander.

Hahn, 49, daughter of the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, has been emphasizing her experience in an anti-gang program and as a member of the elected Charter Reform Commission.

Hahn ran for the 15th District seat in 1993 and for Congress in 1998 but was defeated both times. In the runoff campaign, she has won endorsements from former opponents in the primary election, Robert W. Nizich, Ken Hillman and Frank O'Brien.

Although Cepeda once worked as an aide to Svorinich, the councilman said he supports Hahn now because "she has more experience."

"We are at a critical juncture in the history of the harbor and the city," Svorinich said at a swordfish steak business luncheon sponsored by the Dalmatian-American Club of San Pedro. "I wanted an individual to replace me who didn't need on-the-job training and who knew the people who run the government."

As campaign workers stuffed political mailers in a headquarters decorated with photographs of former Mayor Tom Bradley, major sports figures and her father, Hahn said, "My polls show me way out front by 20 points."

"The buzz in town is that it's all over--I won," she added sheepishly. "But that kind of talk makes me nervous, because it inspires Hector."

Cepeda, 33, has the support of labor unions, Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and a local weekly newspaper, Random Lengths. He has been promoting his energetic manner, sunny demeanor and record as a community leader in marathon door-to-door efforts.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has made $80,000 in independent expenditures on Cepeda's behalf in the runoff. Hahn has decried the spending, which paid for political mailers and precinct walkers, as a symbol of excessive union influence in the election.

However, a recent endorsement in the union's newspaper, the Dispatcher, pointed out that Cepeda was born and raised in a longshore union household, has been a part-time longshoreman and served as executive director of the Harry Bridges Institute.

"Hector is like family in the harbor area," Joe Radisich Jr., vice president of the union's Local 13. "He's also a great candidate . . . and has a good working knowledge of the port and its environment."

Putting on a backpack filled with campaign literature and setting off on a walk through a neighborhood in San Pedro's highlands, Cepeda said, "I've lost 20 pounds in this race. But voters have to be able to recognize a candidate's face."

That was the motivating philosophy behind his 36-mile "precinct pilgrimage," which spanned the entire council district over Presidents Day weekend.

Whether the strategy is effective is debatable. At one San Pedro home he introduced himself saying, "Hi, there. I'm Hector Cepeda. I'm running for City Council."

The elderly woman who answered the door studied his face, smiled and asked, "Say, didn't you used to play for the San Francisco Giants?"

Without missing a beat, Cepeda smiled right back and said, "No, ma'am. You're thinking of baseball player Orlando Cepeda. I want to represent you on the City Council."

The woman agreed to vote for Cepeda and then closed her door.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE CANDIDATES

School breakup, LAPD reform and public safety, public transportation, secession.

Hector Cepeda

Age: 33

Residence: San Pedro

Education: Graduated from Narbonne High School, Harbor City. Attended Cal State Dominguez Hills as a political science major.

Career highlights: President of the San Pedro Coordinating Council. Former field director for the 15th City Council District and the 54th Assembly District, as well as special assistant to two speakers of the Assembly.

Family: Cepeda and his wife, Pilar, are raising their 1-year-old son in San Pedro.

*

Janice Hahn

Age: 49

Residence: San Pedro

Education: Bachelor of science degree in education from Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas . California teaching credential.

Career highlights: President

of the Gang Alternatives Program--Harbor Area. Chair of the School to Career Alliance, which brings businesses and schools together to train potential workers. Elected to the Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission in 1997 to represent the 15th City Council District.

Family: Divorced.

Lives with her two teenage sons. Her daughter was recently married.

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