The race to replace Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn morphed from a likely snoozer into a clash between an environmentalist Latina and a powerful member of the state's legislative black caucus. It is fraught with accusations of ethical misdeeds and carpetbagging.
There are 10 candidates on Tuesday's ballot, but it looks like the contest will come down to two very different Democrats: state Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) and Nanette Barragán, an attorney and former member of the Hermosa Beach City Council. And it will continue past the primary should they, as expected, be the top-two finishers who will face each other in the general election. The 44th Congressional District is strongly Democratic.
Hall has a long history in the district, having served on the Compton school board and later the city council before moving up to the state Assembly. He won a special election in 2014 to replace state Sen. Rodrick Wright, who resigned after being convicted of lying about where he lived to run for office.
Just three months after Hall took over Wright's seat, he entered the race to replace Hahn in Congress. At first he was the shoe-in, carrying a slew of endorsements from state Democrats, including the congresswoman, who is running for county supervisor.
But Barragán has mounted a sharp primary campaign in part by hitting Hall for his ties with special interests in the oil, alcohol, and tobacco industries. And she has caught up to Hall's early fundraising lead to make the race competitive.
She has been rewarded with support of several Latino members of Congress as well as the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Emily's List, the national group that backs female candidates.
Hall and Barragán are the only ones in the race who have spent significant money on get-out-the-vote efforts.
Other candidates have mounted underfunded campaigns, but only two others bothered to pay for candidate statements on the sample ballot: Democrat Marcus Musante, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, and county maintenance worker Morris F. Griffin.
Latinos make up 48% of the district's voters and African Americans account for another 25%, according to an analysis of voter registration data by the firm Political Data, Inc.
Several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have lined up behind Barragán. Local supporters include Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Whittier) and Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' fundraising arm. Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a darling of the left, also are backing her candidacy.
Barragán grew up in Carson, the youngest child of Mexican immigrants. She graduated from UCLA and USC's Gould School of Law before beginning a career as a litigation attorney.
She got her start in politics outside of this congressional district in 2013, when she was elected to the Hermosa Beach City Council. Barragán made a name for herself in the beach town by helping block a local ballot measure that would have overturned the city's ban on oil drilling and pushing through a plastic bag ban.
Congressional candidates don’t have to live in the districts they seek to represent, but Barragán resigned her seat on the council to move back to the district and run — a move that has been a main point of attack from Hall’s camp.
Hall’s campaign tried to paint Barragán as an outsider last fall in a web video that has since been taken down. It highlights a comment Barragán made while running for the Hermosa Beach council three years ago where she talks about her “dream of buying a home in Hermosa.”
At the time, Hall campaign consultant Dave Jacobson pointedly said the senator had "never left his community."
Barragán still has sisters who live in the district and says she is up front with voters about the places she has lived. "It is something I haven't run from," she said.
"I think we are underrepresented all over," he said.
Gonzalez stopped short of saying the 68% Latino district needs to be represented by a Latino in Washington. But he said if the district was majority African American with a Latino running, the Latino would not stand a chance.
"I look at it from the standpoint: if it was reverse they'd be hollering and rightly so," he said.
Hall has run two television ads focused on his upbringing on the rough streets of Compton and his 15-year career in local politics.
One of them features Hahn and Hall walking together around the port as Hahn makes a not so subtle swipe against Barragán. The congresswoman says unlike "other candidates who come and go," Hall is a trustworthy candidate from the community.
Hall's years coming up through the Los Angeles County political machine have paid off. He also is backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
"I don't think anyone else in this race has a record to point to," he said.
Barragán's campaign has called on Hall's campaign to return thousands of dollars in donations from Chula Vista casino owner Harvey Souza, who was charged in a federal money laundering case in 2015.
Hall’s camp responded by pointing out that Barragán accepted $1,000 from one of the owners of a Huntington Park tow truck company who had been investigated for bribing an elected official. (The donation was refunded in January, and prosecutors dropped the charge against Jimmy Sandhu in February.) Hall has not reported returning Souza’s contributions.
Barragán’s camp this week accused Hall of violating federal election law, charging his campaign had spent general election funds for the primary. Hall’s campaign reported having just $39,000 left in the bank last week even though it reported raising about $126,000 earmarked specifically for the general election that cannot legally be used until then, according to figures analyzed by the nonpartisan California Target Book.
Mac Zilber, a Hall consultant, said the campaign had already made some expenditures toward the general election but failed to report them correctly to the Federal Election Commission.
Two independent elections lawyers who spoke to The Times about Hall's spending said the move is legal as long as Hall's campaign amends the reports and proves it did in fact spend the money on general election expenses.
In another dust-up, the African American-owned Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper recently wrote an editorial calling a mailer sent out by Barragán's campaign "disgraceful and lewd." The editorial charges that the mail "artificially darkens the Senator's skin tone" by putting the photo in black and white.
Michael Trujillo, Barragán's campaign manager, said the mailer had "nothing to do with race."