The delicate political balance between blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles County was expected to shift after last week’s special election in the 37th Congressional District, an ethnically diverse area encompassing much of Long Beach, Watts, Compton, Signal Hill and Carson.
With Latinos representing an increasing share of the electorate, early predictions in the race to fill the seat formerly held by the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald indicated that a Latino candidate would probably win the election, especially with the black vote split by two solid African American candidates.
But that didn’t happen.
After Tuesday’s special election, Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), an African American, emerged in best position to win in the seat, which has been held by blacks for decades. She defeated state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), a Latina; Valerie McDonald, Millender-McDonald’s daughter; and eight lesser-known Democratic rivals. Turnout was low, roughly 11%. Richardson had 11,027 votes, compared with 9,144 for Oropeza, who finished second.
In the heavily Democratic district, Richardson is now the overwhelming favorite to win the Aug. 21 runoff against the leading Green Party, Libertarian and Republican candidates.
At her victory party, Richardson said the election wasn’t so much about race as it was about “what’s in your heart.”
“We are not the America of old,” she said after the election. “We are a new America, very diverse. I tried to explain to people: I have never represented a district that was majority African American. I represent everyone I represent, and in a new coalition we must do that.
“There is no longer one color, one perspective, one issue,” she added. “There are many.”
In the race, Oropeza, who served in the Assembly from 2000 to 2006 and was elected to the state Senate in November, had more money than her rivals -- including an infusion of more than $440,000 from Morongo Band of Mission Indians -- and endorsements from the California Democratic Party, the Latino Legislative Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Richardson, a former aide to Millender-McDonald who served on the Long Beach City Council until she was elected to the Assembly in November, had a stronger grass-roots operation backed by a core group of black voters and African American politicians, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) and the California Legislative Black Caucus.
From the moment she announced, Richardson benefited from an unprecedented effort by black elected officials to support her candidacy, a move that succeeded with one major exception: the support by Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) for McDonald.
Also key to her victory was a multiracial coalition of leaders including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which donated $275,000 to her campaign and put more than 1,000 union members on the street, made 45,000 phone calls and distributed 166,000 pieces of mail.
Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said there was some internal grumbling about the failure of Latino leaders to come out more solidly in support of Oropeza, but in the end, he added, the outcome was viewed as one that would ease tensions.
“One of the worst fears was that blacks would line up on one side and Latinos would line up on the other,” he said. “But the Latino leadership was split, and that eased some of the tensions erupting around black and brown relations. Still, there were some Latinos who were angry that Latinos didn’t hold court in supporting Jenny, but that is more of an internal problem.”
Nunez, a former labor organizer, said he had heard some of the complaints about his decision.
“There were some voices out there who think that because you are Latino, you should only be supporting Latinos, but we were able to lower the decibels a bit,” he said. “The good thing about the job I have is that it carries a little bit of weight with it.”
More important, Nunez said, was the principle of supporting a strong African American candidate.
“I wanted to send a message loud and clear to the African American community of Los Angeles that we have got to work together to advance the Democratic agenda,” he said. “The cause of African Americans is not a flag that African Americans have to carry on their own.”
Maria Elena Durazo, a Latina who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said Richardson, who was raised by a single mother who belonged to the Teamsters, has a long history of supporting unions. But she said there was another message that needed to be heard.
“Blacks and Latinos are fighting the same issues: poverty, jobs, lack of healthcare,” she said. “African Americans have been in the leadership in fighting for civil rights in this country, and we want to respect that contribution, not just treat it as nostalgic, something that happened in the past.”
State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said the pundits are wrong to think that simply because the percentage of blacks in Los Angeles County is decreasing, they should be counted out when it comes to opportunities to run for office.
“The consequence of those predictions only serves to marginalize African Americans’ political influence,” he said. “And over and over again it has been proven that these predictions cannot be substantiated. They keep chasing a conclusion that doesn’t come up.... Why are they trying to rush us to a premature death. What is the rush?”
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A look at the 37th
37th Congressional District
Race and ethnicity
Latinos and U.S. citizenship
Sources: ESRI; TeleAtlas; Census Bureau, 2005 estimates