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What Goes Around 

How Tony Cardenas lost his bid for City Council

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
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Race, Republicans and revenge combined to slow Los Angeles‘ Latino electoral-empowerment steamroller in the San Fernando Valley’s 2nd City Council District last month. Underdog Wendy Greuel, who came in second in last December‘s primary, edged out Assemblyman Tony Cardenas in the March runoff for the seat held for 30 years by Joel Wachs.

It now goes without saying that Greuel’s team of John Shallman, Julie Buckner and Sue Burnside ran a better campaign, which may only mean they made fewer mistakes. But it‘s always more interesting to see why the original highflier crashed. In this case, Cardenas was not only the far more experienced politician; he was also backed by what is perhaps too often termed the James Acevedo machine -- after the consultant who’s long been close to both Cardenas and his friend City Council President Alex Padilla. The trio last year helped James K. Hahn win Latino votes against his mayoral opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa.

One campaign insider said the 2nd District outcome made for a tough autopsy: ”When someone wins by 242 votes, all kinds of tiny factors can be responsible for the outcome -- someone forgot to take a shower that morning, there was an outbreak of head lice at Pacoima Elementary School that kept mothers from the polls, all sorts of little things.“

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When I say race, I don‘t mean racism. Cardenas, unlike mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa, had a hard time reaching beyond Hispanic identity politics in a district in which the majority of registered voters were not Latino. As a consultant for one of the eight City Council members who backed Greuel put it, ”If Tony got just 16 white votes, I wouldn’t be surprised.“ Of course, from the precinct figures, it‘s obvious Cardenas got thousands of Anglo votes. But his primary outreach to the non-Latino community was not effective enough to give him a solid win in December or in the runoff. Sources said that rather than improving that outreach, his campaign instead concentrated even harder on getting out the Latino vote. (This effort was hindered by another Cardenas misstep -- the revenge factor, as we shall see below.) Partly, the council consultant said, this was because Cardenas couldn’t create an image of himself much beyond the Latino-empowerment paradigm.

”He needed to have an image that fit in with his Valley council-member predecessors -- tough, maverick individualists like Howard Finn and, particularly, Ernani Bernardi, who once styled himself the populist scourge of City Hall and filed a landmark suit against the Community Redevelopment Agency.‘’ By default, this image, if it went anywhere, somehow went to the mild-mannered, City Hall--friendly Greuel.

Instead, Cardenas was seen by many non-Latino voters as a barrio-politics tough guy. This was not the image of a council member wanted by most of Valley Village and Studio City, where many had voted last year for coalitionist Villaraigosa. Even the fact that Cardenas had highly regarded progressive and environmental legislative records didn‘t work for him. “It was that Sacramento-guy thing,” one observer said. Since Cardenas’ legislative district didn‘t overlap much of the council district, his Sacramento track record was of little use where he most needed it.

Even Cardenas’ greatest legislative accomplishments may have been lost on some affluent voters. This was probably because environmental-justice issues, while important to residents of toxic site--afflicted areas like Panorama City, meant less to the 2nd District residents south of Ventura Boulevard. Similarly, Cardenas‘ juvenile-offender-law reforms might not have appealed to richer communities whose residents felt more threatened by juvenile crime.

Further, some liberal white voters who might otherwise have voted for an able Latino council candidate, didn’t seem that interested in someone who‘d fought to make sure that exactly such a candidate was not elected mayor last year. Wandering the high-income, sidewalk-shy streets of Valley Village and Studio City, so bright during last year’s runoff with Villaraigosa signs, you found neighborhoods pasted with placards for Greuel, for whom the area voted by more than 60 percent.

Cardenas‘ 2001 mayoral-campaign alliance with Jim Hahn dragged him down this time around. So did the assemblyman’s legendary “Indian gambling money” association. Cardenas was often blamed for opening the faucet of tribal money that helped wash away Villaraigosa‘s campaign last year -- an accusation that Cardenas denied. But ironically, less than $2,000 of that tribal gaming money went into Cardenas’ own council campaign, according to Ethics Commission records. This meager sum was not nearly enough to offset the effects of just one of the most intense anti-Cardenas mailers, which vaunted the alleged gambling connection. It showed a neon-glowing, superglamorous Las Vegas casino by night, “coming to a neighborhood near you.”

Then there was that Republican factor. Normally, the Republicans -- whose primary votes for the third candidate, GOP hopeful James Cordero, turned what would have otherwise almost certainly been a December special-election Cardenas win into a runoff -- might have largely stayed home. There would have been little enough, according to this line of thinking, to attract them into this final bout between two politically similar Democrats (although Greuel received Cordero‘s endorsement).

But this little runoff ended up being on the same ballot as the state gubernatorial primary, with its white-hot, big-bucks fight between millionaire candidates Dick Riordan and Bill Simon, along with several other contentious races. Second District Republicans came out in discreet droves to support their favorites. And, while they were at it, many of them voted for a council runoff candidate. It appears, however, that not many of them voted for Cardenas. Despite his endorsements from the police and fire unions, despite his meeting the L.A. firefighters returning from New York at the airport, despite his campaign’s widespread distribution of American flags big enough to plant on the stern of your motorboat, in GOP strongholds like Mission Hills and the semirural areas northeast of Foothill Boulevard, Cardenas was also unable to pull much more than 30 percent.

Finally, revenge. It‘s possible that Cardenas shot himself in the foot with one spiteful campaign move that had nothing directly to do with his council bid. This was in the race for the 39th Assembly seat that he was now termed out of. The strong contender was Cindy Montanez, the talented young mayor of the city of San Fernando. As she was both a Latina and a Democrat, Cardenas might have simply endorsed her and gone on with his own campaign for council.

But Montanez was an ally of Cardenas’ foe, state Senator Richard Alarcon. Therefore, she was a Cardenas enemy. And this made it easier for Cardenas to support his senior office staffer Yolanda Fuentes in her primary bid for the same seat.

Fuentes lost handily. But some Cardenas supporters feel that, in the final days, had the assistance Cardenas extended to Fuentes been applied to his own campaign, the termed-out legislator might now be sitting in City Hall.

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