Take one newly drawn congressional district. Add three Democrats competing for it. Mix in some racial twists, and you have an unusual political stew heading into next year’s political campaigns.
The working-class district that extends north from the Los Angeles Harbor area is strongly Latino but was drawn under federal civil rights law to encourage the election of an African American. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), who is running in the district, is white. Two black candidates, both Democrats, are also in the contest: Rep. Laura Richardson, who represents the Long Beach area, and Assemblyman Isadore Hall III of Compton.
The area has few Republicans. And the state’s new elections system requires that the top two finishers in the June primary — instead of the winning candidates from each party — advance to the general election. So both the June and November battles are all but guaranteed to be an intraparty slugfest.
Similar contests are shaping up in other California congressional districts. But none features the racial overtones that loom over the 44th, where Hahn was called a traitor by some in the African American community even before she publicly announced her candidacy. Activist Basil Kimbrew sent out an email accusing Hahn of having “disrespected and betrayed the black community” by running there.
Voting districts were drawn this year by a citizens commission instead of the Legislature, and the panel was not allowed to consider incumbents’ home addresses in creating them. Additionally, commissioners were bound by federal law to protect minorities’ opportunities to elect representatives of their choice.
Local black leaders lobbied for months to see that the new maps preserved the chances to retain three area congressional seats that could be won by African Americans. They included the new 44th District and those in Los Angeles where black Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Karen Bass will be seeking reelection. The proportion of African American voters has declined as that of Latinos and Asian Americans has increased.
Many of the leaders endorsed Hahn this year, when she ran in a largely coastal congressional seat. But the redistricting commission decimated Hahn’s current district and put her home in the new one, which includes much of the area she represented on the L.A. City Council, as well as Carson, Willowbrook and Lynwood.
Hahn’s “entry into the race made a tough campaign much more complicated because of all the emotions associated with the just-completed redistricting battle and the ever-looming pull of identity politics,” said political consultant Kerman Maddox, an African American who spent months helping advocate for the three districts favorable to black candidates.
“For a lot of us, this is a very difficult situation,” Maddox said.
He added that he likes Hahn and supported her over other Democrats in the special election she won this year. But he said he was standing firmly with Richardson.
African American attorney and political consultant Dermot Givens said he disagreed with black leaders’ strategy of trying to hold onto three congressional districts by allowing black voters to be spread out among them. He would have preferred one or two majority-black districts.
“The reason there is so much anger over Janice Hahn is that she is setting the precedent that will [eventually] take out all the African American” representatives, Givens said, noting that none of the three districts has a majority of black voters.
He said he believes the 59-year-old Hahn will win, in part because her late father, longtime county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Los Angeles, was beloved in the black community and is still remembered fondly by the older women who can be counted on to vote.
Hahn has been campaigning hard since first getting into the race, lining up endorsements from labor, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and scores of elected officials and community leaders in the new district. She has won little support so far from blacks; one of the few exceptions is Jimmie Woods Gray, former chairman of the L.A. County Democratic Party.
John Shallman, Hahn’s political consultant, who has worked for Richardson and Hall, called the situation “unfortunate and an awkward time for me personally” but emphasized that Hahn had nothing to do with the map-drawing.
He said her campaign’s polling showed that black voters are less concerned about the race of a candidate than about such bread-and-butter issues as jobs. Citing the elections of President Obama and Villaraigosa, who appealed to voters across ethnic lines, Shallman said he believed race was becoming less important to Americans than a candidate’s record and “quality of representation.”
Black voters “have seen Janice as a leader, and they know she is going to be the best advocate for them,” Shallman said.
“My family’s history in this community made me realize that certainly a Hahn can represent a minority community in a way that is effective,” Hahn said in an interview.
Richardson, 49, said she has moved into the 44th, about half of which overlaps her current district.
“These aren’t new people,” Richardson said. “These aren’t new issues; these aren’t new neighborhoods.”
She noted that she was seen as the underdog in other campaigns that she won and has represented racially diverse districts.
But Richardson has some baggage, including a troubled personal financial history that included defaults on three home mortgages. And she faces a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether she improperly used her congressional staff to work on her campaign and run personal errands on taxpayer time.
Richardson’s consultant, Eric Hacopian, said he would emphasize Richardson’s attention to economic issues and hard work for constituents, which he said have been overshadowed by publicity about her personal finances.
“People [in the district] know her and like her,” Hacopian said.
Hall, 40, said he believed his deep roots in the district and his record as a reformer on the Compton school board and City Council would appeal to voters. He raised somewhat more money than Hahn and Richardson during the last quarter and, unlike them, has no debt from previous campaigns.
“People in this community want to vote for someone they know,” Hall said. “They are very familiar with the work I have done. The economic development and the jobs I have brought resonate in this community.”