By Michael R. Blood
The Associated Press
EL MONTE, Calif. (AP) — Racial lines are being tested in a Southern California congressional race in which an Asian candidate is a leading contender in a district that has been a Hispanic stronghold for years.
The contest to fill the vacant seat in a heavily Democratic Los Angeles and its eastern suburbs is a snapshot of the state’s fluid racial landscape.
An area where Hispanics supplanted a largely white and Japanese population has in recent years seen a surge in Asian newcomers.
“It’s a community in transition,” says Gil Cedillo, a Hispanic state senator vying for the open slot.
The neighborhoods of the 32nd Congressional District were once thick with Italian delis and Armenian restaurants.
Today, Cedillo said, “One block looks like Saigon, another one will look like Taipei, and then the third one will look like … Mexico.”
He calls the region a “window to the future of America.”
Former state assembly member Judy Chu knows she can’t win the May 19 special election without drawing support from Hispanics, who make up about half of the registered voters and two-thirds of the population.
The seat — held by Rep. Hilda Solis until she resigned to become President Barack Obama’s labor secretary — has been in Hispanic hands since the early 1980s.
“I think I have a great chance to win,” said Chu, a member of the California Board of Equalization, which oversees the state’s various tax programs and hears tax appeals.
She notes that she has captured a string of local elections in areas within the district more than 23 years. “I am a coalition builder,” she said.
There are 12 candidates on the ballot — eight Democrats, three Republicans, and a Libertarian. It’s unlikely that any candidate will get the required majority to win outright on election night. If no candidate clears that mark, the top finishers in each party will advance to a July 14 runoff.
But the runoff would be a formality. The Democrat will be the all-but-certain winner in a district where the party holds a 2-to-1 registration edge over Republicans. Solis won nearly every vote when she was re-elected in November 2008 — Republicans didn’t have a candidate on the ballot.
The two leading candidates, Chu and Cedillo, each share a liberal Democratic pedigree and similar voting records. Both agree that the economy and jobs are top issues.
Endorsements have cut across racial and ethnic lines, and assumptions about racial bloc voting and identity politics are being challenged in the era of Obama.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the nation’s most recognized Hispanic politicians, endorsed Chu and is raising money for her campaign. Villaraigosa and Cedillo have not been close since their days in the California Legislature.
Solis is staying out of the race, but Chu has endorsements from Solis’ husband, mother, father, and sisters. She has the backing of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which is headed by Maria Elena Durazo.
Cedillo has picked off Asian support, including endorsements from a state senator and an assembly member.
In fliers landing in voter’s mailboxes, Cedillo accuses Chu of favoring big business in her position on the state tax board while Chu has been critical of Cedillo’s use of campaign funds for lavish shopping excursions and gourmet meals.
Both candidates stress an ability to work across racial and ethnic lines.
Chu’s Web site features pictures of her with Solis’ family members and Villaraigosa. Cedillo clearly wants a strong turnout from Hispanics, but one mailer talks about his work with Filipino American veterans.
White voters are a sliver of the electorate but could provide a decisive margin in what’s expected to be a low-turnout election.
Political scientist Raphael Sonenshein gives Chu a slight edge, given her close political ties to the district, which includes the area she represented in the Assembly. Cedillo’s senate district does not overlap the area.
He only recently moved into the district, although he has family ties there dating to the 1970s.
“To beat her, you have to pretty much convince Latino voters to vote as Latinos,” says Sonenshein, who teaches at California State University, Fullerton. “His advantage is the growing Latino consciousness in the state.” The district’s population is about 64 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 12 percent white, and 2 percent Black.
Chu and Cedillo have strong ties to immigrant communities.
Chu became involved in politics fighting an English-only proposal for signs in her hometown; Cedillo’s signature bill would allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, an idea he has pushed unsuccessfully for years.
Cedillo has the support of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is eager to keep the seat in Hispanic hands.
For Hispanics, “a lot of our needs have not been met,” said Rep. Joe Baca, a Democrat and caucus member who represents a neighboring district. “It’s a Hispanic seat. We should not lose that seat.” ♦