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
"There were any number of times when someone would say to us, 'I am voting for your guy because you are the only campaign that has ever called and asked me for my vote,'" says Padilla. "People like to be asked for their vote. That's a lesson I learned from Tip O'Neill."
There is a wonderful incongruity in Padilla's comment that points to one of the keys of the campaign's success. For all the talk of the "newly emerging Latino electorate" and "changing demographics," there is a decidedly old-school edge to the Alarcon campaign and the politics it practiced. "People who ran campaigns in the '30s, '40s and '50s in working-class districts would understand instinctively what is going on here," says Saeed Ali, a consultant to the Latino caucus in Sacramento. "It's LBJ-style populism."
Whatever you call it, the proof is in the numbers that pols will be poring over in the weeks ahead as they try to figure out exactly what Alarcon's victory says about the new political calculus in California.
The big number, of course, is the proportion of Latinos among the electorate as a whole. Ali says that according to one preliminary estimate, Latinos represented 33 percent of primary voters in the 20th Senate district in last month's primary, against 25 percent Latino voter registration in the district. That sort of premium on voter registration was unthinkable only two or three years ago, says Ali, and mirrors a statewide trend toward a motivated Latino electorate spurred by its opposition to initiatives like Propositions 187, 209, 226 and 227. The Katz campaign, apparently hewing to the old conventional wisdom about low Latino voter turnout, pegged the Latino proportion of "expected 1998 primary voters" at roughly 20 percent of the overall electorate, according to a fact sheet they distributed prior to the election - an apparently fatal miscalculation.
There is, to be sure, a darker side to Alarcon's "old school" campaigning, one that the Katz camp has been playing up since the day after the election. "It's spelled P-O-L-A-N-C-O," as one political wag put it. That would be State Senator Richard Polanco, Chairman of the Latino caucus and a key Alarcon backer. In the final days of the race, Polanco poured upwards of $180,000 into Alarcon's campaign, much of it for an incendiary mail piece targeted to Latino households, associating Katz with the notorious Orange County "poll guard" incident in which Assemblyman Curt Pringle's campaign posted uniformed guards at polling stations to discourage Latinos from voting.
For the Katz campaign, Polanco represents the scepter of the bad old school: the ethnic-based, machine-style politics of yore. He is a bogeyman, a Boss Tweed en espanol. "If it weren't for Polanco's money . . . this race would not have been that close," said Mitch Englander, a consultant to the Katz campaign, as he watched the county election workers tally ballots one day last week. "Its unfortunate that they decided to play the race card in this campaign."
Bill Mabie, a top aide to Polanco and a key figure in the Alarcon campaign, overhears Englander from his post in the hallway outside the verification room. "Race card? Ask Katz why his campaign people have been systematically challenging ballots with Latino surnames," he says. "Ask the election workers here which campaign is playing the race card. They'll tell you." Mabie's charge - that the Katz campaign targeted Latino ballots for exclusion - would appear in an article in the L.A. Times the following day, accompanied by a stock denial from the Katz campaign.
And it is Polanco's success, he figures, that is behind many of the attacks. "What this is all about is Katz trying to explain why he lost a race that everyone in town figured he had won," says Mabie.
What it is also about is that fact that, for all the candidates' protestations to the contrary, race and ethnicity played a huge, dramatic role in the vote. Indeed, when one analyzes the vote precinct by precinct one is struck by a huge disparity: despite the closeness of the overall race, precincts either went heavily for Katz or heavily for Alarcon, with very few balanced in the middle. According to a preliminary estimate by the Alarcon campaign, Latinos, concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the district, voted 80 percent for Alarcon, while Jews, heavily represented in the southern and western areas, voted 80 percent for Katz. "It is that dramatic a split," says Mabie.