Racial Lines Tested in Calif. House Race

Michael R. Blood, AP, May 9, 2009

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 stretch of 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, including Filipinos, Vietnamese and Chinese.

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The neighborhoods of the 32nd Congressional District were once thick with Italian delis and Armenian restaurants. Today, Cedillo [Gil Cedillo, a Hispanic state senator and candidate for the open spot] said, “one block looks like Saigon, another one will look like Taipei and then the third one will look like .&nsbp;. . Mexico.”

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 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.

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There are 12 candidates on the ballot–eight Democrats, three Republicans and a Libertarian. It’s unlikely 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 more than 2-to-1 registration edge over Republicans. {snip}

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Endorsements have cut across racial and ethnic lines, and assumptions about racial bloc voting and identity politics are being challenged in the era of President Barack Obama, the first black in the Oval Office.

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 also has the backing of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, headed by Maria Elena Durazo.

Cedillo has picked off Asian support, including endorsements from a state senator and an Assembly member.

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Chu’s Web site features pictures of her with Villaraigosa and Solis family members. 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.

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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. {snip}

“To beat her, you really 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, while 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.”

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