STANDING NEAR THE SHIMMERING WATERS of Lincoln Park Lake, union organizer Kevin de León spent a good part of election night offering up thank-yous to the crowd of people who helped him achieve his stunning 20-point victory in the 45th District, a hotbed of progressive political activity that provided one of the most competitive races in Tuesday’s primary election.
De León had just scored a major victory over Christine Chavez, an organizer for the United Farm Workers, who campaigned heavily on her status as granddaughter of Cesar Chavez. And he had been at the epicenter of a massive effort by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to secure a handful of legislative seats.
But while de León had the backing of the trifecta — Núñez, Villaraigosa and the County Fed — the results in other parts of Los Angeles County turned out to be somewhat more mixed. The County Fed had literally flooded the zone of the 45th, which stretches from Hollywood to El Sereno, in its effort to score a win for de León, the man who calls the Speaker of the Assembly his best friend.
Panicky backers of de León had wondered throughout the final days of the campaign whether their candidate might succumb to the Chavez family name. On election night, with de León winning by nearly 20 percentage points, campaign operatives were posing a different question: Did the city’s most politically galvanized unions divert so much attention to de León that other labor candidates had been left out in the cold?
After all, in the nearby 43rd Assembly District, Burbank school-board member Paul Krekorian handily defeated Glendale Councilman Frank Quintero — a man with the backing of Big Labor — in the battle for the Democratic Party nomination. Out in the San Fernando Valley, support from Villaraigosa and the County Fed wasn’t enough to save Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez. She lost her fight for a state Senate seat to Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, who secured the Democratic Party nomination and led his opponent by 12 percentage points.
The southern flank of Los Angeles County offered even greater surprises. In the 48th Assembly District, a section of South Los Angeles that abuts the Harbor Freeway, political aide Mike Davis overwhelmingly defeated trial lawyer Anthony Willoughby, who had the strong support of the County Fed, in the fight for the Democratic Party nomination. And in the 55th Assembly District, Long Beach City Councilwoman Laura Richardson scored a decisive victory against Los Angeles Community College District trustee Warren Furutani, who works for Núñez and had the backing of both Villaraigosa and the County Fed.
Labor had publicly promised to focus its get-out-the-vote drives — a combination of telephone banking and high-intensity precinct walking — on behalf of four candidates: Montañez, Furutani, Willoughby and de León. Of those four, only one — de León — emerged the winner in Tuesday’s primary.
De León had insisted for days that he was actually trailing Chavez, who relentlessly highlighted her familial ties but drew the ire of voters by ducking candidate debates. Third-place candidate Elena Popp had portrayed him as the beneficiary of a “boys’ network” that includes Núñez and Villaraigosa. Even on election night, Jackie Goldberg told Popp supporters that de León was in effect an uninformed candidate who didn’t live in the district — in 2004, he registered to vote from an apartment where he slept occasionally on the couch.
Goldberg said the Federation of Labor had the resources to push Furutani to victory in his Carson–Long Beach campaign, yet abandoned him in favor of de León’s battle in the 45th. “I even think they took resources out of Cindy’s race,” said Goldberg, referring to Montañez’s losing campaign for state Senate. “I’ve never seen so many people in my district in my life for one race, and almost all of them were paid.” State Senator Gloria Romero, who backed Chavez, said she received similar reports. “We kept hearing from the other campaigns, ‘They’re pulling our walkers and sending them over to Kevin,’ ” she said. “At a certain point, I think there was a sacrifice to save the speaker’s little friend.”
The head of the County Fed, Maria Elena Durazo, did not return a call seeking comment on the resources devoted to Tuesday’s primary election. But Cristina Vazquez, international vice president and secretary for UNITE HERE, said her union divided its resources evenly, sending 500 workers apiece to de León and Montañez. “We worked hard for both of them, because they’re both warriors for the men and women that we represent,” she said.
UNITE HERE, which represents the region’s hotel and restaurant workers, comprises the foot soldiers for many of the region’s political campaigns. Still, volunteers at the UNITE HERE headquarters on Alvarado Street greeted callers with the message “Kevin de León for state Assembly.”
UNITE HERE members often provide the foot soldiers in contested Los Angeles campaigns. But Service Employees International Union sent out its own plea for help, offering $55 per day to volunteers who walked door-to-door on de León’s behalf. The campaign arm of SEIU 1877, an organization known as SOL, assigned 140 members to fan out across the district. “I’ve been walking the whole month,” said Grey Pichinte, a member of SOL who lives in East Los Angeles and attended the de León campaign party.
De León cut his teeth politically in 1994 as an organizer of the largest march against Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant ballot initiative that galvanized Latino voters. That same year, Villaraigosa won the state Assembly seat that de León will likely assume. (Technically, he won’t occupy the seat until November, after he has defeated the Republican nominee.)
A FORMER ROOMMATE OF DE LEÓN, Núñez had been facing a minor threat to his power base from the stable of candidates backed by Sacramento lobbyist and political consultant Richie Ross. Voters rejected Chavez and another Ross client — state Senate hopeful Rudy Bermúdez, who placed just 394 votes behind his opponent, Assemblyman Ron Calderon, in a district centered around Norwalk.
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Still, Ross did eke out a few election victories. Schoolteacher Tony Mendoza won the Democratic nomination in a district stretching from Hawaiian Gardens to Pico Rivera, while optometrist Ed Hernandez won his party’s nomination in a Baldwin Park–based district. Davis, an aide to County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke scored a stunning 21-point upset against Willoughby in the South Los Angeles contest for state Assembly. And in the South Bay, Inglewood Councilman Curren Price was leading Gardena Councilman Steven Bradford by just 124 votes in the race to replace departing state Assemblyman Jerome Horton. But whether the stable of Ross clients — a group that includes Richard Alarcon, the San Fernando Valley pol who is jumping into the state Assembly in November — will pose a leadership challenge to Núñez is unclear.
Then there was the question of women. Throughout the primary campaign, departing legislators and up-and-coming candidates warned that Tuesday’s election would reduce the number of women serving in both chambers. De León could fill one of the seats that had been occupied by a woman, while Montañez gave up her state Assembly seat in her unsuccessful bid for state Senate.
La Cañada–Flintridge Mayor Anthony Portantino, who enjoyed the support of Villaraigosa and the County Fed, won the Democratic nomination to fill the seat being vacated by Assemblywoman Carol Liu. Monterey Park Mayor Mike Eng, another candidate backed by Villaraigosa and labor, may fill the seat being vacated by his wife, Assemblywoman Judy Chu. And in the West Hollywood–Brentwood–Sherman Oaks area, former Los Angeles Councilman Mike Feuer defeated West Hollywood Councilwoman Abbe Land, who had the backing of many of the state’s female lawmakers.
One area where women held the line was the coastal district represented over the past decade by state Senator Sheila Kuehl and, more recently, by departing Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. The woman Pavley and Kuehl selected for the seat, Santa Monica–Malibu school-board member Julia Brownley, emerged victorious from a crowded heap of Democratic candidates — outpacing a lawyer, an environmentalist and an environmental lawyer.