Bass Win May Signal Political Shift in South L.A.

Times Staff Writers

Community activist Karen Bass achieved a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for the 47th state Assembly district by assembling a coalition that extended beyond the traditional base of African American voters to include Latinos and organized labor.

That broader coalition, which allowed her to trounce two candidates who have long been part of the African American political establishment in the area, may signal a changing of the guard in South Los Angeles. The district extends from Westwood through Culver City to the Crenshaw area.

Bass captured 48% of the vote in the Democratic primary, while Nate Holden, who represented part of the area as a state legislator and city councilman for 20 years, received 21%. Attorney Rickey Ivie finished a distant third, despite support from many of the area’s most prominent black leaders, including current Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City).


Bass and political experts said that her campaign had benefited from demographic shifts, grass-roots organizing and the power of organized labor.

The candidate said people had seemed to appreciate that, before running for office, she had toiled in the community for more than a decade as the executive director of the Community Coalition, a group that led the fight against rebuilding liquor stores in South Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, and championed education reform for schools in poor neighborhoods.

“I think the idea of new leadership resonated,” Bass, 50, said Wednesday. “People wanted a new style of leadership. I think they liked the fact that I was an activist who had been deeply involved in the community for years.”

Working in the community gave Bass a huge base of grass-roots supporters to draw on in one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the state, said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who, along with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D- Los Angeles), formed a powerful group of Latino leaders that backed Bass.

“She has demonstrated that successful candidates in multiracial districts are going to have to build coalitions, and Karen Bass has been building coalitions for 30 years,” Villaraigosa said. Bass benefited from a $250,000 independent campaign by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which also flooded the district with 450 volunteers to get out the vote on election day.

“She is part of a new paradigm, of an African American/labor alliance for South Los Angeles,” said Miguel Contreras, head of the labor organization.

The 47th Assembly District was redrawn in 2002 to make it less heavily African American, making it imperative to build alliances beyond a single ethnic group. That’s an increasingly important skill in Los Angeles, where the growing Latino population means there are few areas where someone can be elected with the support of black voters alone.

Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), a Bass backer, said Bass had done the best job of reaching out to diverse groups. Bass said she had courted Jewish voters in the western end of the district, while organized labor had helped her by targeting Latino voters on her behalf. Ideology also played a role, Ridley-Thomas said, saying that Bass is more liberal than Ivie, Wesson and Burke.

“Ivie is a middle-of-the road, moderate Democrat and Karen is definitely left of center and progressive,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A..

A Baldwin Vista resident who teaches health communications at the USC School of Medicine, Bass agreed that she was a better ideological match with voters in the predominantly Democratic district.

The 47th Assembly District was one of 100 state Senate and Assembly contests that drew California voters to the polls Tuesday.

Though Tuesday’s winners must still compete in the November general election, most districts have been drawn to strongly favor either Republicans or Democrats. As a result, odds are good that the people who will take seats as new lawmakers in December will include Van Tran, who would become the first Vietnamese American elected to the Legislature, and Lori Saldana, a San Diego community college teacher who shocked the Democratic establishment by spending just $50,000 to beat other Democrats who enjoyed hundreds of thousands of dollars of support from some of the biggest interests trying to influence the Legislature.

Saldana’s clear win over former Gov. Gray Davis aide Vince Hall and Democratic pollster Heidi Von Szeliski was the biggest decided upset in the state, but three races were too close to call Wednesday as counties tallied absentee ballots.

Interest groups, including trial lawyers, business groups and unions, sank nearly $7 million into races, either directly or through independent expenditure campaigns, but no special interest group emerged as a clear winner.

The election allowed some politicians to extend their careers, including Board of Equalization member Carole Migden, who won the Democratic primary in a liberal San Francisco state Senate district, and Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine), who beat fellow Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) for the Republican nomination in a conservative Orange County Senate district. Johan Klehs, a Democrat who has served eight years in the Assembly and six years on the Board of Equalization, appears headed back to the Assembly. Unopposed, he won the nomination in a Democratic-leaning district east of San Francisco.

Another former assemblyman seeking a comeback, Democrat Tom Umberg, had a slight lead of 51.2% to 48.8% over opponent Claudia Alvarez in the heavily Latino 69th Assembly District, which includes Santa Ana. Alvarez held out hope Wednesday that the absentee ballot tally could swing the race her way.

Also awaiting absentee ballot results were the trial lawyers who sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 21st Assembly District south of San Francisco. A four-way race among Democrats has been narrowed to a neck-and-neck contest between Redwood City Councilman Ira Ruskin, with 37.4% of the precinct vote and attorney Joe Carcione, with 36.6%.