The race between Compton state Sen. Isadore Hall and former Hermosa Beach Councilwoman Nanette Barragán to replace Rep. Janice Hahn has taken a sharper, racial edge as election day approaches and the intraparty contest tightens.
Not previously well known in political circles, Barragán has mounted a serious challenge against Hall, a 15-year veteran of Los Angeles politics. Running as a progressive outsider, she has relentlessly blasted Hall's ties to special interests in the alcohol and tobacco industries and hit him for campaign contributions he has received from petroleum interests.
In a recent interview, Barragán, who is Latina, kept the attacks going, calling the African American lawmaker "slimy." But she did not stop there, giving a statement that some say injected race into the campaign.
"I don't think we should send a man to Congress who could have a black taint on the party with the number of ethical issues surrounding my opponent," Barragan told the Daily Breeze newspaper. "This is the pattern of somebody who thinks they're above the law. This is the worst type of politician who talks out of both sides of his mouth."
Hall, the chairman of California's Legislative Black Caucus, and his allies have seized on the "black taint" comment, calling it a racial slur.
The statement comes after a dust-up from the primary, when Hall's campaign and the Los Angeles Sentinel, which covers the African American community in the city, slammed a mailer sent out by Barragán's campaign as "disgraceful and lewd" for using a black-and-white photo of Hall they said "artificially darkens the senator's skin tone."
Alice Huffman, the longtime president of the California branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a statement she was "shocked and appalled" at what she called "the racially charged language and tactics" employed by Barragán's campaign.
"When I saw her quote in the [Daily Breeze] referring to Hall as a 'black taint,' I was, in a word, speechless. Then I saw how she artificially darkened his image in her campaign mailers, and I knew this was no mistake. This is a pattern," Huffman said in the statement. "As such, she has proven herself to be totally unfit to serve in the U.S. Congress. We've come too far and fought too hard to let politicians like Barragan and Donald Trump debase our public discourse in this manner."
Hall's campaign has sent out mailers that highlight Huffman's statement on one side and feature large bold words on the other reading: "I sincerely hope Ms. Barragan pays dearly for her disgusting words and actions on Election Day."
Barragán apologized in a statement sent by her campaign Saturday.
"I want to be clear that my comments in a recent Daily Breeze article were about the need to keep more corruption out of Washington and were never intended to be taken in a racial context," she said in the statement. "I certainly meant no offense and I sincerely apologize for my poor choice of words."
The kerfuffle comes as the race has been tightening, with outside groups coming in to influence the race to the tune of nearly $1 million.
Barragán, who has been endorsed by several Latino members of Congress as well as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, has benefited recently from a surge of independent expenditures paid for by Women Vote!, a super PAC tied to Emily's List, the national group that backs Democratic female candidates.
The group has spent $678,000 to support Barragán and oppose Hall. California's congressional delegation is losing three women between Hahn stepping down to run for Los Angeles County supervisor, Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) retiring, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange) running for the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, Hall has benefited from support from many of the industries that helped him in his races for state Assembly and state Senate: three Native American tribes that operate casinos in the state, the California Independent Petroleum Assn. and a pair of billboard companies.
Hall has the backing of the state Democratic Party as well as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor cut a radio ad for Hall in October.
Barragán's campaign has attempted to turn Hall's deep roots in the party into a weakness. Her attacks on Hall's ties to special interests have helped her win a number of endorsements from progressive and environmental groups including Our Revolution, a political 501(c)(4) nonprofit supporting down-ballot candidates that sprang up after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' failed presidential bid.
After that endorsement, she posted a large haul from small donors — people who contributed less than the $250 reporting threshold for federal elections. Barragán now has $242,000 — twice as much as Hall — left in the bank, according to the latest federal records.
The campaign has been marked by bitter attacks since the primary.
Barragán's campaign has tried a wide variety of attacks against Hall, including setting up a website filled with opposition research against him. Her campaign also posts updates on the website about a civil dispute between a Compton housing development and a group of tenants who claim they have been harassed by the owners. Hall, who supported the development as a councilman and lives in the complex, has been called as witness.
They have accused Hall of committing fraud when one of his mailers claimed the endorsement of the Progressive Democrats of America, a group that has endorsed Barragán. Hall's campaign said it was a typo — clarifying that a local group called the Progressive Democratic Club has endorsed Hall.
One Barragán staffer filed a complaint against Hall with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department — Hall is a reserve deputy — because he appeared in a uniform in campaign materials. California elections code prohibits using government seals in campaign literature. Hall's camp responded by saying the uniform was a rented costume and by blurring over the badge in a YouTube ad online.
Meanwhile, Hall's campaign has attacked Barragán for working as a litigation attorney for banks including J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America.
One wild card in the race will be if minority voters show up in a district where it is estimated that 48% of voters are Latino and 25% are black, according to the firm Political Data Inc.
"There is a school of thought that Latinos voters are angry and scared and will turn out in massive numbers," said veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "That may be the story of the presidential race."
But he warned, "Just because a voter is Latino does not mean that the voter is automatically going to vote for the Latina in the race."
Both sides are gunning for that vote. Barragán added the middle name "Diaz" just before filing to run in the race, according to court records. In an interview she said it was one of her father's names and she had been intending to add it to her legal name for a long time.
She spent part of Saturday in South Gate campaigning with Sanchez, who along with former Nevada Atty. Gen. Catherine Cortez Masto could be the first Latinas in the U.S. Senate.
Hall campaigned Saturday with former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and Denise Lopez Diaz, who is running for South Gate City Council.
The race will be closely watched by political insiders curious how the top-two primary is playing out in California.
"You couldn't get a much more stark contrast in terms of who the candidates are and how they are perceived," Sragow said. "It is a classic face-off."
5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with voter demographics details from Political Data Inc.