By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It's Wednesday afternoon, eight days after election day, and City Councilman Richard Alarcon's campaign team is camped out in the gray hallways of the County Registrar-Recorder's Office in Norwalk, trying to stay loose. As election workers verify the final ballots from the 20th Senate District race, their candidate is clinging to a 27 vote lead over former Assemblyman Richard Katz - a lead that will shrink to 7 votes by Friday, only to lengthen to a final margin of 31 the following Tuesday. "As Chick Hearn would say, It's nervous time," jokes one campaign consultant.
The race wasn't supposed to be this close. Katz, a veteran Sacramento player with sharp political skills, should have been on a victorious post-campaign vacation by now. The demographics of the district, which stretches from Reseda and Canoga Park in the west to Sun Valley and Pocoima in the northeast, were just too strong for Alarcon to overcome. Or so the conventional wisdom said.
But even as the returns were trickling in on election night, eight days ago, it was clear that the conventional wisdom had miscalculated. Returns from the heavily Latino precincts in the northeast portion of the district showed a huge turnout for Alarcon, offsetting Katz' strength in the more affluent southern and western precincts. After two rounds of ballot counting, less than one-tenth of 1 percent separated the two candidates.
As each side hovered over the returns, pols from across the state were taking notice of the historic upset in the offing that would make Alarcon - already the first Latino elected to the City Council from the San Fernando Valley - the first Latino Senator from the Valley. For two decades the voters of the 20th Senate District had been sending Jewish democrats to Sacramento, and while the face of the Valley was getting more and more Latino, Katz was considered a safe bet to continue that legacy. Now all bets were off. The long-awaited and much commented emergence of the Latino vote was arriving much sooner than anyone had expected.
But even with his candidate on the verge of an historic upset victory, Allejandro Padilla, the young, charismatic manager of the Alarcon campaign, says he is not surprised. Tired? Yes. Nervous? Yes. Surprised? No. It's been this way in each of the three campaigns he has run, Padilla says: for assemblymen Tony Cardenas and Gil Cedillo in 1996, and the current race. Each time his candidate was given odds of slim to none. His record so far: 2-0, with number three hanging in the balance.
"There's really no secret to it," says Padilla, professing astonishment at everyone else's surprise. "We identified our supporters and made sure they got out to vote on election day. It's politics 101."
Why did they get involved in the campaign? "Because of Allejandro," they chime in unision; Padilla blushes sweetly and turns away. Martinez, who had previously worked on a local city council race in the City of San Fernando, went to high school with Padilla and signed on to the campaign when she heard he was running it. Despite her relative inexperience, Padilla tapped her to coordinate the campaign's massive volunteer program, which kept phone banks staffed seven days a week from the beginning of March to the beginning of June. Garcia says she went to the campaign office because she heard they were looking for a receptionist. "I had no idea it was for a campaign," she says. "I was just looking for a job." She wound up in charge of the yard-sign program, overseeing the manufacture and distribution of more than 10,000 signs to the district - an extraordinary number. "10,513 to be exact," she says.
The lawn signs program was typical of the zeal Padilla and his 1,000-plus volunteers mustered. "We had up to 30 or 40 people in the office phone banking, seven days a week," says Martinez. "High school kids, family members, friends, you name it."
"It's really not rocket science," says Padilla. "It still comes down to reaching out to voters and getting them out to vote on election day."
The difference, of course, is that Padilla and his volunteers were reaching out to people who had never been reached out to before - who for years were considered either unreachable, or not worth reaching, by pols who focussed their energies on what is becoming an increasingly unreliable commodity: the "likely voter." The methods of modern campaigning that have characterized California legislative races for the past 25 years - the targeted direct-mail appeal, mastered by Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino in the 1970s - largely overlooked the sporadic, low propensity voter, as do many polls.
Yet from the outset, these "low propensity" votes were precisely the people the Alarcon campaign went after. They had, really, no other option. In a straight theoretical matchup of the "likely voters" coveted by campaign consultants, Alarcon would have lost handily to Katz - which is precisely what the pundits predicted. And as Padilla and his team made contact with the low-propensity voters - one by one, in person, on the phone, or likely both - they came to the conclusion that a key reason so many Latinos never bothered to vote was that no one had ever asked them to.