It’s the most potent dynamic in the most hotly contested legislative primary battle in the state, but almost no one wants to talk about it — not on the record, leastways.

The candidates — former Assemblyman Richard Katz and Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon — have declared it a nonissue. The voters in the 20th Senate District aren’t thinking much about it, either. And you won’t read about it in any of the campaign mailers or hear about it on the stump.

But behind the scenes, among pols and power brokers in Los Angeles and Sacramento, the expensive and increasingly nasty campaign to succeed termed-out Senator Herschel Rosenthal is being driven in large part by the emerging rivalry between the entrenched, predominantly Jewish Democratic power structure and an insurgent Latino legislative caucus. “No one set out to have that sort of showdown,” says one veteran Sacramento aide who is close to the Alarcon campaign. “But that’s what it is turning into, no question about it.”

As such, the race between Katz, the veteran assemblyman and consummate Sacramento player, and Alarcon, L.A.’s first Latino elected official from the Valley, reflects the shifting demographic and political calculus in Los Angeles, where the post–Proposition 187 emergence of a viable Latino electorate is rapidly transforming the landscape of regional politics. “You have a community that has traditionally had power and is not going to give it up, and on the other side a maturing Latino political force that is saying, ‘It’s time we took our place,’” says the aide.

Just don’t ask the candidates to talk about the race in these terms. “This Jewish-Latino thing, it may be an issue among op-ed writers, but it’s really not an issue for us,” said Katz in a recent interview. “We honestly don’t see it in those terms,” said the other Richard in the race, Alarcon. “We are going after all the voters in the 20th Senate District.” Indeed, with the exception of a single piece by Times Valley columnist Scott Harris on the issue — for which Harris has been widely criticized — the issue of race and ethnicity has been almost invisible in the campaign.

This reticence is understandable — even laudable — given the historic success of interethnic coalition building among Los Angeles Democrats, as well as the parallel narrative of ethnic strife in the city.

Moreover, both Katz and Alarcon have track records of winning elections and governing with significant “crossover” support — a term that both candidates, in their race-neutral pitch, eschew. Katz maintains a strong base in the heavily Latino 39th Assembly District, which he represented for 16 years before being forced out by term limits. And Alarcon, a telegenic candidate who comes off as among the least “ethnic” Latino lawmakers, won his council seat with a majority of non-Latino votes and has deftly avoided pigeonholing himself. With Latino voting numbers still relatively small in the district (29 percent in the last election), Alarcon in particular can ill afford to alienate potential non-Latino votes. And he is hoping that his endorsement by Mayor Richard Riordan, who remains unaccountably popular in the Valley, will generate a significant amount of crossover appeal.

Too, among Valley voters ethnicity is not a particularly salient issue. “There is tension building between Jews and Latinos, but it doesn’t permeate beyond the depth of politicians and strategists,” says one longtime Valley pol. “It is not something the average voter is thinking about.”

Likewise, political commentator Gregory Rodriguez, one of the first to identify what he called the “impending collision of Eastside and Westside,” notes that “It is important to make the distinction that this is a rift among the political elite, but not on the ground.” In other words, it is not a fight over ethnicity; it is a fight for power using ethnicity as a tool. In an L.A. Times opinion piece last August, Rodriguez cited clashes between Jewish and Latino lawmakers over MTA funding and the downsizing of County-USC Hospital as early indicators of the coming conflict.

The race between Katz and Alarcon represents the first high-profile, head-to-head electoral battle between the factions. And the 20th Senate District — one of the San Fernando Valley’s most diverse seats, stretching from Reseda east to North Hollywood and northeast to Sun Valley — is one of the few districts in Los Angeles where “Eastside” and “Westside” constituencies exist side by side.

As soon as Alarcon announced his candidacy last summer, coalition-minded leaders worried that backing in the race would divide sharply along ethnic lines. Despite the efforts of groups such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the Jewish American Committee, which have hosted roundtable discussions to bring together leaders from both groups, that is more or less what has happened.

While both candidates like to point to their crossover endorsements — Scott Wildman for Alarcon and Diane Martinez for Katz, for instance — Katz has picked up the endorsement of virtually every Jewish lawmaker in the area, and Alarcon the backing of most Eastside elected officials.

The Alarcon campaign in particular has been buoyed by the backing of State Senator Richard Polanco, reigning kingmaker of the Latino caucus in Sacramento. In the last several years, Polanco has been one of the most effective pols at getting other Latinos elected to office and building a power base for himself in Sacramento — and, critics say, among the least inclined to build coalitions across ethnic lines. According to one source close to Polanco, he is prepared to pour significant resources into the race to defeat Katz. “Alarcon will have all the money he needs to get his message out,” says the source.

“This race is very, very important to the Latino caucus in Sacramento,” says one capitol insider. For one, Alarcon’s candidacy represents an opportunity for the caucus to flex its political muscles beyond its traditional base in East Los Angeles. (In a similar vein, Polanco is also backing Raul Godinez, mayor of San Fernando, in an extreme long-shot bid against Congressman Howard Berman — a move that appears all the more quixotic, and heavy-handed, considering that Berman over the years has been one of the most effective defenders of Latino rights in Sacramento and Washington.)

On a more visceral level, the race also represents an opportunity for the Latino caucus to settle a score with Katz that has been festering since Katz, as former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s anointed successor, beat out Cruz Bustamante for Democratic minority leader of the Assembly in 1995. In the wake of that fight, Katz, rather than trying to bring the Latino dissidents into the fold, “was merciless in punishing them,” says the Sacramento insider. “Katz didn’t do it because they were Latino,” the source adds, “but simply to punish his enemies, like an old-fashioned politician. And now, all of a sudden, here is this opportunity to knock off Katz.”

For all their professed disavowal of ethnic politics, both candidates must realize that the outcome on election day will hinge on who can turn out his core constituencies to vote.

It will certainly not hinge on traditional issues like crime, taxes and education. Between Katz and Alarcon, centrist Valley Democrats both, there is barely a dime’s worth of difference on these issues, and the candidates have often found themselves seconding one another’s positions at issue forums. Moreover, this year’s unusually sanguine electorate is not clamoring for bold change or drastic action.

It is in the campaign field operations that one gets the most direct look at who the respective candidates are counting on to put them over the top. “They don’t want to be called racist,” says political consultant Larry Levine, a resident of the district. “Each side knows what they are doing and who they are reaching out to, but no one wants to talk about it.”

Levine, whose Van Nuys neighborhood lies in the southern, more affluent part of the district, says, “We haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Alarcon campaign down here. . . . He has been a phantom candidate.” The Katz campaign, with yard signs and mailers and a phone-bank operation, has an extensive presence in the area.

Alarcon, meanwhile, has put considerable resources into a get-out-the-vote campaign in the northeastern part of the Valley. The strategy, says one source close to the campaign, is, in part, to replay Assemblyman Tony Cardenas’ stunning upset victory in the 1996 primary race to fill the Assembly seat Katz vacated due to term limits. Outspent almost 3-to-1 by two solid-white candidates, the Cardenas campaign, running an inspired ground operation, turned out thousands of low- to no-propensity Latino voters on election day, who carried him to a landslide 20-point win.

It’s a risky strategy on Alarcon’s part. As Levine notes, “My demographic [Levine identifies himself as Jewish and a senior] is still the most powerful one in the district. There are a lot of us.” Or, as another longtime Valley pol put it, “The power base in the district is old Jewish ladies, and they will vote for Richard Katz, and Richard Katz will win.” If Alarcon is somehow able to pull off the upset, it will signal that the long-term demographic shifts pundits have been talking about are arriving much faster than anyone realized.

The closest Katz and Alarcon came to acknowledging the ethnic dynamic at a recent forum hosted by the Jewish Home for the Aging of Los Angeles was when they were asked to identify the “singular defining issue” of the race. “Experience,” said Katz, referring to his 16 years in Sacramento. Katz is the candidate you know and trust to get the job done. “Timing,” said Alarcon, “Every community goes through changes . . . [that] provide the opportunity for new leadership to emerge and take hold.”

That time may not be now. But it is coming, to the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.